The EU has said that new light touch arrangements for the movement of retail food consignments from Britain to Northern Ireland will not be fully implemented until inspection facilities at Northern Ireland ports have been completed and audited.
The head of the European Commission's animal health and food safety division has told the European Parliament that officials based in the European Commission’s veterinary office in Grange, Co Meath, will carry out an audit of the facilities before the new system under the Windsor Framework can become fully operational.
Bernard van Goethem told MEPs that the process to change EU law through so-called "implementing acts" to facilitate the arrangements was conditional on the completion of agrifood inspection at four Northern Ireland ports.
"None of the implementing acts will be adopted unless we are sure controls are done in a proper way," he told members of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee.
"The controls currently in Northern Ireland are not up to the standard required by EU legislation.
"We have the assurance from the UK government that the current facilities that are there will be upgraded by October 2023, and that the final definitive [sanitary and phytosanitary] SPS inspection facilities will be built by July 2025."
Under the Windsor Framework, formally adopted by the EU and UK last Friday, agrifood products from Britian destined for the Northern Ireland retail sector will require vastly reduced paperwork and physical checks at ports.
Mr Van Goethem said some 200 trucks per day carrying retail food products would avail of the new arrangements.
This will cover food, animal products and plants sold in supermarkets.
He stressed that the changes to EU law to facilitate the Windsor Framework flexibilities will only apply to the retail sector when it comes to the movement of food, animal products and plants.
"When carcasses of pigs arrive from Great Britain to Northern Ireland they will go through the normal process of certification and control," he said.
The senior Commission veterinary official outlined in detail how the Windsor Framework will operate when it comes to so-called SPS controls.
In general, the Windsor Framework will simplify requirements and controls when it comes to certification for animal-derived food products, plants, pets and agricultural machinery.
Retail goods enjoying lighter touch checks will only be permitted to go to retailers, catering companies or restaurants in Northern Ireland when they are labelled "Not for EU" and where it is clear they will be consumed in Northern Ireland.
Goods, especially meat products, will have to be pre-packed as well as labelled.
However, where there are loose goods, such as fruits and vegetables from Britain, or cheese which is cut at a deli counter, there will be shelf labels informing consumers that the products have not been produced according to EU food safety standards and that they are not to be sold beyond Northern Ireland.
Meat products, he told MEPs, will have to have come from animals born, raised, slaughtered and cut in Britain, or have come from an EU member state.
When asked about the risk of Brazilian beef carcasses being mixed with British beef and sold in Northern Ireland, Mr van Goethem said all carcasses or uncut beef products would be subject to the normal export controls and certification processes at Northern Ireland ports.
Brazilian beef would only be given "green lane" access if it had already been imported into the EU and cleared for SPS controls at ports such as Rotterdam.
MEPs were told that seed potatoes would be granted a derogation from EU law under one of the six implementing acts which Brussels will adopt in the coming months.
This will mean that British seed potatoes can be planted in Northern Ireland.
Mr van Goethem told MEPs that cats and dogs can be taken from Britain to Northern Ireland if they are microchipped and accompanied by a pet travel document issued by the UK authorities.
The owner will also be required to produce a document that the pets will not move beyond Northern Ireland into the south.
MEPs were told that EU legislation approving the changes will be adopted "once we receive the guarantee from the UK that the system is ready, and once we are sure that SPS facilities have been upgraded."
Mr van Goethem said there would be 18 EU food safety and animal health officials based in Belfast to oversee the operation of the SPS inspection facilities at Northern ports.
Under the Windsor Framework, agrifood controls at Northern ports will be gradually reduced, while labelling requirements will be gradually phased in.
EU single market rules normally require documentary, identity and physical checks on goods entering from third countries.
Under the new deal, 100% of electronic documentary checks will remain and can be done remotely from the ports.
Some identity and physical checks will be reduced to 10% from October this year, reduced to 8% in 2024, and 5% by 2025.
On labelling, from October this year all pre-packed meat and some pre-packed milk products will require "Not for EU" labels.
From October 2024 all milk and dairy products will require labels, while July 2025 all retail goods "should be labelled individually."
'A significant political issue'
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher paid tribute to the European Commission team and said that the protection of the integrity of the EU single market was "significant".
He added: "The most significant issue is that we try and remove any impediments to the flow of goods…from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, because that was a significant political issue."
Colm Markey, Fine Gael MEP, said: "Simplifying checking should make an enormous difference to business and I think it's important that we embrace it and we try and put this through as quickly as possible."
Sinn Féin's Chris McManus welcomed the agreement, saying that the European Parliament agriculture committee mission to Northern Ireland should be expanded to take in a cross-border element.
Independents4Change MEP Mick Wallace raised the question of UK wholesalers shipping Brazilian beef mixed with British beef to Northern Ireland, and what would happen to sides of beef that were not individually packed (which Mr van Goethem addressed).
Independent MEP Luke 'Ming’ Flanagan echoed the call for the committee to visit both sides of the border.
"You've got to see what's happened on both sides because you will see there is no wall, there is actually no border, you're able to walk between one part or the other, and this [Windsor Framework] agreement means we'll be able to continue."