Customs labs looking to the future

Customs chemists from many continents came to a recent seminar in Amsterdam. They were all agreed on at least one point: the classic customs laboratory has had its day.

What are the needs, desires and fears that will dominate future society? Are our services ready for what the future holds? And do we have the scientific knowledge we need to keep pace with changing requirements in our field? These are essential questions that were considered by customs lab technicians from all over the world during a recent seminar in Amsterdam. They were all agreed on at least one point: the classic customs laboratory has had its day.

The public image of customs organisations is largely determined by officers who check luggage at airports or containers in seaports. But these men and women, in their striking green uniforms, depend strongly in their day-to-day work on colleagues who operate behind the scenes. Not least the chemists and physicists at the customs laboratory. These scientists in their white jackets – with their in-depth expertise and high-tech test equipment – all too often have the last word on the composition or origin of products that form the subject of customs checks. On aspects such as the legality or the correct tariff category of those goods.

Awareness of social needs
In June over 250 of these clever clogs from many continents arrived at the Dutch capital for the sixth edition of the SECC*, a three-yearly seminar under the flag of Customs 2020.** A word that frequently came up during the seminar was ‘connection’ – between customs labs, customs services and society. Ger Koomen, manager of the Dutch customs laboratory and co-organiser of the event: “As true scientists it has to be said – with all due respect – that our people are not always the best communicators. They focus very sharply on their work at the analysis table. But in the years to come they will have to come down from their ivory towers more often. Before long our institutes will only stay relevant if we pay more attention to social needs.”

Work shifting towards the field
That starts with listening more to customs officers in the operational process: what do they need to do their jobs properly? In this context there is one especially important development: the technology is rapidly becoming portable, more robust and more user-friendly. Koomen: “In the product analysis area we are moving towards apps for smartphones, with the addition of extra devices. Operational customs officers will be able to use this handheld equipment to carry out their own analyses at the checking location. That means that in many cases it will no longer be necessary to submit goods samples. Some of the work is therefore shifting from the lab to the field. That’s good for Customs because it means that the most relevant information about goods and how they are being transported can be collected at the border – in the middle of the transport chain. But the business community will also benefit from this movement: the logistics process will be hindered less by our activities.”

“This implies that the customs laboratory as we know it is changing”, continues Koomen. “But our specific expertise will continue to be valuable to the organisation. We’re able, for instance, to translate the wishes of Customs directly to the manufacturers of the technological devices: these are the tools we want. We are also the ideal party for testing prototypes: do they meet the specifications claimed by the producer? And finally we are the best placed to explain how to use the new equipment to the colleagues responsible for carrying out the physical checks.”

Shared research tasks
There will always be a need for product analyses that are so thorough that it is necessary to involve customs laboratories. These complex research tasks will be shared between the various European labs, foresees Koomen. “The machines needed for this are very expensive. It’s no easy matter for our institutes to make these investments, and the answer is found in specialisation. I can easily imagine that we in the Netherlands will concentrate on aspects such as DNA analyses. Such as tests on products that may contain threatened plant species, or frozen fish for which import duties may be payable. We already have the knowledge and advanced technology needed for that purpose. Other countries will work according to their own strengths. Hungary and Italy, for example, are good at isotope analyses to determine the geographical origin of goods. This trend will not lead to mutual competition between labs but to efficient partnership. Parties that have a sample that needs thorough investigation will consider what the best place is to have this done, and who has the capacity for it at the time.”

Intrinsically innovative
Despite all the radical changes, Koomen is looking to the years to come with confidence. “Why? Because innovation is in our genes. In the context of sustainability and on the request of the EU, the Dutch customs laboratory recently presented a new method for the analysis of biobased products. This method can be used to find out whether plastics are made from recent biological material – such as grains – or from fossil products. That means that if the EU decides to start charging different import tariffs to discourage the use of polluting plastics, all of our foreign colleagues will be able to start operating the system straight away. And that’s just one example of our intrinsic urge for innovation.” Clearly: the future has already begun for the European customs laboratories.

* SECC: Seminar for European Customs Chemists
** Customs 2020: an EU programme that promotes partnership between the customs services of the 28 member states

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