Spot checks: Europe’s customs officers struggle to catch faulty goods
LIÈGE, Belgium — What if the pushchair you bought on a marketplace has no brakes — or if your air fryer catches fire while making Belgian frites?
It happens more than you think. Testing by European consumer groups has shown that products bought on marketplaces can be faulty, with two third of a sample failing safety tests in one wide-scale study.
Yet at one of the biggest e-commerce hubs in Europe, on the outskirts of the airport in the Belgian city of Liège, customs officials admit that keeping up with the influx of products — and checking them against thousands of pages of EU legislation — is nigh impossible. Despite plans to give them bigger facilities and a doubling of the team’s size, keeping on top of quality control can be “very difficult,” said Arnaud De Wilde, head of the customs’ control department in Liège. Whether it’s staffing or time, “we never have enough,” he added.
It’s little wonder De Wilde and his team are struggling to keep up. The logistics hub in Liège is the main entry point into Western Europe for the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, as the airport handles some 3,000 tons of freight overall every day.
The sheer volume of packages at place like Liège, and the challenges customs officials face in keeping up with the flow, exposes European consumers to the risk of buying faulty or even dangerous products, according to consumer groups. It also suggests that, even as the European Union writes new legislation on product safety, the bloc is falling short of its duty to ensure that its existing rules are properly enforced.
The customs officers at the airport do their best to intercept products that fall afoul of EU regulations: On a recent Thursday afternoon, they confiscated a set of dodgy cables, a suspicious pack of acupuncture needles and a pair of counterfeit Nike sneakers with backwards “Swoosh” on the verge of falling off.
But it’s anyone’s guess how many other defective or dangerous products fell through the cracks. A 2020 study by BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, found that two-thirds of the products they bought on online marketplaces like Amazon, Alibaba and Ebay fell afoul of EU safety laws. Testing by consumer groups has found teeth whiteners with excessive amounts of hydrogen peroxide, an air fryer that started smoking as soon as it was plugged in, and “smart” home devices that were vulnerable to hacking.
Even as modern logistics shuttles packages from abroad in unprecedented numbers, the customs officers on De Wilde’s team are still operating out of a little fenced cage inside the logistics warehouse, with cardboard boxes marked with handwritten signs to sort goods.
Compared to the “ocean of products” that are coming into the European market every day, the number of authorities that can check them is “a drop,” said Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC. In addition to the rising numbers of parcels, customs agents also need to handle ever larger binders of EU rulebooks, full of regulation ranging from chemicals to cybersecurity for connected devices.
Changing the game
E-commerce has changed the product safety game. Across the world, customs officers and other authorities are increasingly being asked to handle tiny parcels that are shipped individually by millions, rather than containers carrying goods in bulk — making it difficult to carry out the physical inspections that remain the most effective way to stop faulty goods.
The “nature of trade has changed,” a customs expert group in March said, in a report in which it urged European customs to up their game on protecting consumers.
“It used to be the case that there was just a container full of stuff that was 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 have to ramp up customs to make sure that they have more capacity to do more checks. But that’s also why there should a bit more responsibility for marketplaces.”
Far from holding online retailers to higher standards, politicians have usually raced to accommodate them, and the airport in Liège is a prime example.
For Belgian politicians like former prime minister Charles Michel — now EU Council president — and former foreign minister Didier Reynders — now EU Commissioner in charge of consumer protection — attracting Alibaba was part of a plan to revive the economy of Liège, proving the deindustrialized city with thousands of new jobs at the airport. In the run-up to the relationship Belgian King Philippe has met with the e-commerce site’s founder Jack Ma.
“The red carpet was rolled out for Alibaba” by all the political elite, said Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian MP from the green Ecolo party who has warned that the facilities in Liege could facilitate spying 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’s part of a 2018 EU voluntary safety pledge, going “beyond current legal requirements”.
“Under the pledge, AliExpress [a subsidiary of Alibaba] works closely with EU 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 logistic hubs bring, or the utility to consumers e-commerce sites can provide. The question is how — or even whether — customs officials can keep up.
Authorities also try to coordinate at the European level — flagging infractions to counterparts in other EU countries, so a manufacturer can’t easily reroute defective products to other markets.
The EU has a rapid alert system, called Safety Gate circulating information about dangerous products among national authorities. Motor vehicles and toys ranked highest in the list of unsafe products in 2021, with injuries and chemical hazards as the most frequent types of risks.
EU lawmakers are also working to strengthen the bloc’s product safety rules, with a review of the so-called General Product Safety Regulation (GPSR) expected to be wrapped up this year.
But regulations are only as good as the ability to act on them. Beyond issues of capacity, there’s also a need for expertise on the ever-growing range of product categories, each with their own EU rules. “Staff needs to be more and more expert,” said BEUC’s Goyens. “Because how do you identify an unsafe product? It’s about chemicals, it’s about cyber resilience.”
There’s only so much customs officers on the ground can do, said De Wilde in his office in Liège. His team recently had a bit of luck — a new hire is a fan of Apple products and knows the latest devices well, which makes it easier to spotty fake or defective merchandise.
But generally 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.
Every week, representatives of the most powerful brands on the earth (think Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Guess) meet with customs to assess potential counterfeited goods that were seized the week before. On a regular basis, brands also train custom officers to spot the latest advances in fakery.
For other types of faulty or dangerous products, Liège customs have contacts with other government authorities: the telecoms watchdog, the food safety regulator, the agency overseeing medicine safety. “We would never, at the level of customs in any case, be able to make definitive decisions on our own,” De Wilde said. “We assume our stop function and then we trust the market surveillance authority to follow up.”
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