After concerns were raised about possible shortages on commissary shelves because of new enforcement of import restrictions in Europe, U.S. and European Union officials reached an agreement to allow 451 shipping containers of products to move to commissaries in Europe, commissary officials announced this week.

The EU officials agreed to allow the 451 shipping containers of products to flow to U.S. bases in Europe. Those containers hold about 1 million cases of items ranging from baby formula and baby food to pet food and canned meats.

It’s unclear what happens to the pipeline after mid-June, but negotiations continue.

“It’s important to stress that at this time there has been no effect on product being sent from the U.S. to Europe,” said Bill Moore, director and CEO of the Defense Commissary Agency, in a press release. “We will continue monitoring shipments to Europe and work with our military resale partners and industry suppliers to ensure our customers in Europe are supported.”

Newly enforced restrictions imposed by the European Union in late February threatened to stop 451 shipping containers of dry food products in various stages of transit to the U.S. bases. Until then, there had been unwritten, verbal exemptions to these restrictions given to the U.S. military, since 2007. During the first week in March, negotiators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture held “multiple meetings” with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, and the Dutch agreed to allow those 451 shipping containers to flow to commissaries, commissary officials said.

The restrictions, which apply to any dry food products that have ingredients derived from an animal, affect about 1,800 individual “shelf stable” stock items sold in the commissaries in Europe. The EU restrictions would require each of these items to have a health certificate. Not all shelf stable products are affected, because not all products have animal ingredients. Products affected ranged from baby formula and baby food to canned meats, canned fish, soups with meat, powdered milk, canned milk, pet food, dried meat and jerky, canned pasta with meat, meat sauces and honey.

The new restrictions don’t affect U.S. shipments of frozen and chilled items, and the fresh beef and pork products, because these items already have health certificates issued by U.S. government inspectors.

But the restrictions applying to dry food products with any animal-derived ingredient mean that suppliers have to go back and document the origin of the animal. For example, if there is a seafood component in the dry food product, the supplier has to document the waters that the fish swam in and the fishing boat that caught the fish. The origin of the milk in baby formula must be documented.

The agreement to allow the 451 containers through takes DeCA into the mid-June time frame for these products, said Chris Burns, executive director for DeCA’s sales, marketing and logistics group, in the announcement. “Going forward, we are hopeful that all required health certificates are secured for any container that follows the 451 in route.”

It takes nearly two months from the time a product is ordered, until it gets to a commissary central distribution center in Europe, traveling by sea. The 451 containers are at various stages in the approximately 55-day order-to-delivery cycle. And as part of their normal operations, commissary distribution centers in Europe maintain a 30- to 45 day supply of dry goods items. “As such, we’ll have enough stock to support our customers in Europe through at least mid-June,” said commissary spokesman Kevin Robinson.

Questions remain; negotiations continue

As negotiations continue between U.S. and European Union officials, questions remain. If commissary officials in the end have to follow the restrictions, it’s too early to tell whether it would cause an increase in prices, members of industry told Military Times. And it’s unclear how long it would take to get the documentation for the individual health certificates, because products are provided from many different vendors. So it’s unclear when or if the new restrictions would affect the supply chain, and thus, the supply of products on the shelves.

U.S. officials are negotiating with European Union officials on current and future EU requirements. The Foreign Agricultural Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has held multiple meetings with the Dutch during the past week, and the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority officials have agreed to allow the 451 containers destined for Rotterdam to flow as they normally have in the past, Robinson said.

Along with this high-level effort, the commissary agency’s distributor is working with suppliers to obtain the required health certificates for the containers that flow after the 451, Robinson said.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the supply chain doesn’t get interrupted,” said Sharon Fleener, director of export operations and quality assurance for SpartanNash, a leading distributor of products to commissaries in the U.S. and overseas. She said many suppliers in the industry have reached out to her, asking how they can help. “They’re just really trying to get the information to me, because they know it’s going be a challenge getting that information” for the health certificates.

Fleener said she is confident that there will be some kind of resolution of the issue. “I really want any patron to know we’re all in a fight for it, that this gets taken care of as soon as possible.”

Industry representatives question the new restrictions, given the rigorous inspection processes already in place in the U.S.

“We have very stringent inspection mechanisms in the U.S. This pipeline is a closed pipeline to American mouths. The rationale escapes me. Why now do we have to comply with European rules when this stuff is not going to European consumers?” said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, which represents suppliers of products to commissaries and exchanges. He contends the health certificates shouldn’t be required.

“This is uncharted territory. We need to fully understand the costs, repercussions and implications for American consumers in Europe,” Rossetti said.

For 40 years, Congress has provided taxpayer funding to transport American products overseas to commissaries and exchanges for service members and families, he said, “because of the belief that American families are entitled to recognizable American products in foreign countries.”

The taxpayer funding, which was about $91 million in fiscal 2021 for all the overseas transportation costs for commissaries, pays for the cost of getting products to commissaries so that overseas service members and their families’ costs for food is similar to the prices in military commissaries in the continental U.S.

“Recognizable American products are considered safe by American families because they go through stringent FDA and USDA controls,” Rossetti said.

“So the mom in Germany wants to see American products because she knows they’re safe and reliable.”

This article was updated to clarify the commissary agency’s comment about the time frame.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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