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European customs officers struggle to detect defective goods – POLITICO


LIÈGE, Belgium — What happens if the stroller you bought at a market doesn’t have brakes — or your air fryer catches fire while being made in Belgium fries?

It happens more than you think. Tests by European consumer groups have shown that products bought from marketplaces can be faulty, with two-thirds of a sample failing safety tests in a large-scale study.

Yet at one of Europe’s biggest e-commerce hubs, on the outskirts of the airport in the Belgian city of Liège, customs officers admit that tracking the influx of products – and comparing them to thousands of pages European legislation – is almost impossible. Despite plans to give them bigger premises and doubling the size of the team, keeping quality control can be “very difficult”, said Arnaud De Wilde, head of the customs control service in Liege. Whether it’s staff or time, “we never have enough,” he added.

It’s no wonder De Wilde and his team are struggling to keep up. The Liège logistics hub is the main entry point into Western Europe for the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, since the airport handles a total of some 3,000 tonnes of freight every day.

Belgian customs officers check a shipment in Brussels | Benoit Doppagne/AFP via Getty Images

The sheer volume of parcels in places like Liège and the challenges customs officers face in keeping up with the flow put European consumers at risk of buying faulty or even unsafe goods, according to consumer groups. It also suggests that even as the European Union drafts new product safety legislation, the bloc is failing in its duty to ensure that its existing rules are properly enforced.

Airport customs officers are doing their best to intercept products that do not comply with EU regulations: on a Thursday afternoon, they confiscated a set of dodgy cables, a suspicious package of acupuncture needles and a pair of counterfeit Nike sneakers with “Swoosh” upside down. “about to fall.

But no one can guess how many other defective or unsafe products fell through the cracks. A 2020 study by BEUC, the European Consumer Organization, found that two-thirds of the products they buy from online marketplaces like Amazon, Alibaba and Ebay breach EU safety laws. Tests by consumer groups found teeth whiteners containing excessive amounts of hydrogen peroxide, an air fryer that started smoking as soon as it was plugged in, and “smart” home appliances vulnerable to hacking.

Even though modern logistics transport parcels from abroad in unprecedented numbers, the customs officers of De Wilde’s team still operate from a small fenced cage inside the logistics warehouse, with boxes marked of handwritten signs for sorting goods.

Compared to the “ocean of products” arriving on the European market every day, the number of authorities who can control them is “a drop”, said Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director general. In addition to the growing number of parcels, customs officers must also manage ever-larger filing cabinets of EU regulations, filled with regulations ranging from chemicals to cybersecurity for connected devices.

Change the game

E-commerce has changed the game of product security. Around the world, customs officials and other authorities are increasingly being called upon to handle tiny packages shipped individually in the millions, rather than containers carrying bulk cargo, making it difficult to perform the physical inspections that remain the most common means. more efficient to stop defective products. goods.

The “nature of trade has changed,” a group of customs experts said in March, in a report urging European customs to up their game on consumer protection.

“Before, there was just a container full of things that were all the same, and then you could do sample testing,” said Dutch Green MEP Kim Van Sparrentak, who follows the topic of product safety. “That’s why we really need to strengthen customs to make sure they have more capacity to do more checks. But that’s also why there should be a bit more responsibility for marketplaces.

Far from imposing higher standards on online retailers, politicians have generally rushed to accommodate them, and Liège airport is a prime example.

For Belgian politicians like former Prime Minister Charles Michel – now President of the Council of the EU – and former Foreign Minister Didier Reynders – now European Commissioner for Consumer Protection – attracting Alibaba was part of a recovery plan for the Liège economy, proving the city deindustrialized with thousands of new jobs at the airport. In the run up to the relationship, Belgian King Philippe met with e-commerce site founder Jack Ma.

“The red carpet has been rolled out for Alibaba” by the entire political elite, said Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian MP from the green Ecolo party who warned that facilities in Liege could facilitate espionage by the Chinese government.

Alibaba said it tries “to comply with all applicable laws and regulations in the markets in which we operate”, adding that it was part of a 2018 EU voluntary security commitment, going “to- beyond current legal requirements.

“Under Escrow, AliExpress [a subsidiary of Alibaba] is working closely with European and national authorities to remove non-compliant products, monitor product recalls, and remove identified or recalled products,” an Alibaba spokesperson said.

On the ground

Few would dispute the importance of the jobs brought by logistics centers or the utility that e-commerce sites can offer consumers. The question is how – or even if – customs officials can keep up.

Authorities are also trying to coordinate at European level by reporting breaches to their counterparts in other EU countries, so a manufacturer cannot easily re-route faulty products to other markets.

The EU has an early warning system, called Safety Gate disseminate information on dangerous products to national authorities. Motor vehicles and toys topped the list of dangerous goods in 2021, with injuries and chemical hazards being the most common types of hazards.

EU lawmakers are also working to tighten the bloc’s product safety rules, with a review of the so-called General Product Safety Regulation (GPSR) expected to be concluded this year.

But regulations are only worth the ability to act on them. Beyond capacity issues, there is also a need for expertise on the ever-growing range of product categories, each with their own European rules. “Staff need to be more and more expert,” said BEUC’s Goyens. “Because how do you identify a dangerous product? It’s about chemicals, it’s about cyber resilience.

Customs officers on the ground can’t do much, De Wilde said in his office in Liège. His team recently had a bit of luck – a new hire is a fan of Apple products and familiar with the latest devices, making it easy to spot fake or faulty merchandise.

But usually, officers rely on other authorities when it comes to product safety, or manufacturers when it comes to counterfeit products. “Or else you would need a super ministry with hundreds of specialists, but that’s not feasible,” De Wilde said.

The new terminal at Liège Airport | Bruno Fahy/AFP via Getty Images

Each week, representatives from the most powerful brands in the world (think Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Guess) meet with customs to assess potential counterfeit products that were seized the previous week. The brands also regularly train customs officers to spot the latest advances in counterfeiting.

For other types of defective or dangerous products, the Liège customs have contacts with other government authorities: the telecom gendarmerie, the food safety regulator, the drug safety control agency. “We would never, at the customs level anyway, be able to take final decisions on our own,” De Wilde said. “We do our stop function and then we trust the market surveillance authority to follow up.”

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