“Testing on location saves us a lot of time and energy”
Recently, Dutch Customs Laboratory staff spent a couple of days at the Joint Inspection Center (JIC) at Schiphol. Along with their colleagues from physical supervision, they were surveying how best to organise the so-called satellite function of the lab at the airport. The objective is to eventually be able to analyse more material and product samples ‘in the field’ instead of in the ‘bricks and mortar’ lab in Amsterdam Sloterdijk. “This could mean numerous advantages for our organisation, but also for businesses.”
Are these goods allowed to enter or exit the European Union? Are they perhaps prohibited, or do you need to have a permit or licence to own them? Do customs or excise duties have to be paid on them? And if so, how much? Each one of these is a standard question in day-to-day customs work. But it’s not really so easy to answer them as you might think, even if the average customs officer has a huge amount of professional know-how and experience, and even if he or she knows who to go to for specialised questions – the contact people who are completely at home in a specific type of goods. In really difficult cases, the Customs Laboratory can offer a solution. Many thousands of samples sent from all the customs regions are subjected each year to all kinds of chemical analyses and physical tests. These are conducted by those with advanced degrees in chemistry and biochemistry, supported by hypermodern measuring and testing equipment. The results provide irrefutable proof of the chemical composition of a material or article. They therefore show whether it contains ingredients that are prohibited, or whether it should be classified in a specific tariff group, which is important for reasons of fiscal finance.
Local offices in logistical hotspots
For some years now, the Customs Laboratory has an own van, in addition to its vast and recently renovated permanent facility. It’s staffed by rotating groups of chemists and can be equipped with all kinds of instruments for chemical or physical testing as desired. This means that Customs’ regular monitoring work can be supported across the country. Consider, for example, something like inspecting lorries on motorways for improper use of excise-free red diesel. “We used to call that van the Mobile Lab”, Mariël Zwaagstra, scientific staff at the Customs Laboratory, explains. “But we actually don’t use that term any more. We now talk about the satellite function of the lab, which is a broader concept. That’s better because we are working towards setting up a number of small, more or less permanent local offices in places where there is a lot of logistical traffic: satellite labs. Right now, we already have our own space at IMEC in The Hague, a big post sorting centre run by PostNL. That’s where we examine international postal shipments for the presence of narcotics, drug precursors and illegal medicines. We are currently setting up a similar workspace in the port of Rotterdam, where the focus will of course be on sea freight. That’s also primarily linked to the fiscal aspect: checking whether the right commodity code is given on the declaration. We often see, for example, large shipments of ceramic or metal goods that are designated as requiring a low tariff. So during these two testing days at the JIC, we’re exploring what kind of materials and equipment we would need to systematically analyse suspicious items from air cargo containers and parcels sent by courier services. We’re on location with a number of chemists and our van full of equipment, so we can handle all kinds of things.”
Less time consuming
“What we would really like is therefore to transfer some of the lab work to the logistical hubs”, Zwaagstra’s colleague Marcel Heerschop elaborates. “Because analysing things in the field is often much more efficient. A regular testing procedure at the lab costs us a lot of time: samples have to be sent in, then they have to be recorded and stored, then we can do the actual testing, the results are afterwards recorded in a report, and subsequently checked again by a chemical expert. Finally, the results are sent out to the customs officer who sent in the sample. At our location in the Rotterdam port area, we discovered that not only do we need about 50% of the samples that would usually be sent to us when processing everything on location, but also that the process is relatively quick and easy. That’s because you can often skip intermediate steps and start right in with testing. And if then, for example, you discover that goods have not been correctly registered, you can choose to classify it right away with the right tariff – obviously after consulting with a chemical expert. In the satellite lab, we also don’t have to record as much, which makes a difference in the time it takes. Naturally, we safeguard the quality and record of the test results. If a company lodges an objection against our conclusion based on a lab analysis or similar sample*, then we will need all the information about that particular commodity, sample and investigation.”
Zwaagstra: “Besides, testing on location fits better with the idea of working in the immediate situation, one of Dutch Customs’ priorities. It’s also good for businesses if they don’t have to wait for weeks or months for the results of our investigation. Time is money, certainly in logistics. But we will never be able to do all the tests we would like to in these satellite labs. Some tests are so complicated that we need very specialised equipment and expertise that is only available in Amsterdam.”
Dietary supplement or medicine?
At the JIC, the chemists on site are asked to pay attention to dietary supplements, among other things. “It’s interesting stuff for Customs, because it carries both fiscal and health risks”, Zwaagstra explains. “We sometimes see that supplements have been designated as medicines, because they have a 0% tariff. But if one of these products doesn’t contain any active ingredients, or not enough, it’s not a medicine and is taxed at a higher rate. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that medicines are designated as supplements because a manufacturer wants to sidestep having the product checked by Customs for compliance with the Medicines Act. Which means it may contain prohibited or possibly dangerous substances. There’s an area of tension here: we sometimes see producers searching out the boundaries. There’s a good reason our colleagues who do customs checks send us various things that they find questionable. One of the nice things is that we can also see how they use the medicines app in their work. The Customs Laboratory developed that app, along with several experts and technicians from the Mobile Competence Center at the Dutch Tax Administration. Surveillance staff can therefore also use the app to determine themselves if a product is a medicine or related product. Days like this are good for our involvement in Customs’ primary processes: together we look at how we can improve things and learn from each other.”
Drugs cache or false alarm?
“You can see that exchange in lots of different areas”, Heerschop adds. “Today we also had a couple of cases involving narcotics. Staff from the JIC brought a large shipment of capsules out of their storage that had been recently intercepted. They had already done colour testing on the products, which revealed that they contained amphetamines. After they had sent the shipment to the HARC team** for further investigation, they heard back that no substances subject to the Dutch Opium Law were found after all. They thought that was a bit strange, they said. We therefore repeated the test that the HARC team had done for them with our equipment, and we got the same results. We explained that the colour test – which is often used within Customs – sometimes returns a false positive. That was a real eye opener for them.”
Another time it really was ‘gotcha!’ Heerschop: “Colleagues brought us a plastic bag with white powder that they had recently discovered on scanner images of a motor part. A colour test had also been carried out on this, which showed that it was probably heroine. We analysed the powder again using two techniques and were able to confirm that it was indeed heroine. These two examples reveal how productive it can be if staff from the customs lab are on site with their equipment. You can change gears faster.”
Heerschop and Zwaagstra are satisfied with their experience at JIC. “Just as in the port of Rotterdam, we see that there is potentially a wide range of samples for analysis here”, Zwaagstra says. “So it seems like there is plenty for us to do. But whether we will actually set up our own testing area at Schiphol in the short term is not yet definite. You have to staff a satellite lab, too, and buy extra testing materials. That all costs money, and the question remains whether that investment would pay off. That’s something for Customs management to decide.”
* The results of investigations carried out by the Customs Laboratory are based on the natural laws of chemistry and physics. There’s no disputing the documented chemical composition of samples tested. But it is possible to discuss the interpretation of these results – how they become subject to customs regulations and such things as tariff classification – based on subjective arguments. This explains why commodity codes and such things sometimes cause long drawn-out objection and appeal procedures between Customs and businesses.
** The HARC team is a collaboration between Customs, the Fiscal Information and Inspection Service (FIOD), the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office that is dedicated to combatting drugs smuggling.
The Customs Laboratory employs 86 staff members. Last year, a total of approximately 22,000 samples were investigated; in a third of these cases irregularities were detected. The work is divided between 25 specialised clusters. The busiest clusters in 2020 were the Mineral Oil cluster (4,881 samples), Other Foodstuffs and Dietary Supplements (1,490) and Narcotics (1,162).
Source: Customs Laboratory Annual Report 2020