UK food exporters demand ‘urgent’ action over post-Brexit vet shortages

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The food and drink industry is demanding ‘urgent action’ from the government to address a severe shortage of vets to handle post-Brexit UK food exports.

Industry groups have warned that a sharp drop in the number of EU veterans registering to work in the UK since Brexit, coupled with a huge increase in paperwork for exporters, is creating an “unsustainable” staff shortage “.

Food producers estimate that Brexit-related bureaucracy, which has seen the number of official export forms to be completed increase 12 times since January 2021, is costing the industry £60million a year.

According to the British Veterinary Association, qualified vets are required to sign the very detailed Export Health Certificates, or EHCs, needed to send food to the EU post-Brexit, putting enormous pressure on Britain’s network of veterinarians.

The number of EHCs has risen from 29,000 in 2020 to more than 288,000 in 2021, according to official government figures, requiring the equivalent of 580,000 man-hours for vets.

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James Russell, senior vice-president of the BVA, said the fall in the number of registered vets in the EU since Brexit, coupled with the growing demand for veterinary certification, was creating “a storm of shortages” in the profession.

He added that moving vets from farm work to export certification work was just “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

“The potential consequences are worrying. If we cannot find long-term solutions to veterinary labor shortages, we will see impacts on animal welfare, public health and international trade,” he warned.

Prior to Brexit, EU vets working in the UK were an essential part of the certification workforce, according to the BVA. However, since new immigration controls came into effect in January 2021, the number of people applying for jobs in Britain has fallen from 1,132 in 2019 to just 364 last year, according to Royal College data. of Veterinary Surgeons.

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Food industry groups estimate that absorbing the costs of new sanitary and phytosanitary measures – known as SPS controls – would require an additional £3billion in sales in the first year of Brexit.

The Food and Drink Federation, the industry lobby group, calculated that food sales to the EU fell by £2.4bn, or 23.7%, in the first three quarters of 2021 due to Brexit bureaucracy and Covid-19.

Karin Goodburn, director of the Chilled Food Association, said the figures were actually an underestimate of the total cost to the food industry, as they excluded the wider costs of the new bureaucracy for agri-food products.

Post-Brexit rules requiring detailed documentation of products of origin in composite products, such as ready meals or processed snacks, further strained the system, and many food companies stopped trading with the EU. EU accordingly, she said.

“Without urgent action, the situation will only deteriorate and there is no quick fix. For example, it takes over five years to train the vets we need to certify EHCs,” Goodburn added.

The SPS Certification Working Groupa cross-industry body that includes 26 food producer groups, from millers to pet food producers and shellfish farmers, is calling on the government to do more to facilitate the short-term recruitment of vets and speed up the process of digitizing certificates.

The group, chaired by Goodburn, is calling on the government to seek a formal SPS deal with Brussels to reduce controls – something the government has always ruled out on the grounds that it requires too much alignment with EU law.

The British Meat Processors Association said the BVA report highlighted that current export certification arrangements were “unsustainable”.

“The whole of the UK food industry needs a solution that removes the need for these processes and requires a full veterinary agreement with the EU based largely on some form of alignment. Not only will this reduce costs, but it will put veterinary resources back where they are needed,” the BMPA added.

Defra, the agriculture department, said it was taking steps to address the problem, including more funding, adding vets to the Home Office’s shortage professions list and tripling the number official veterinarians qualified to sign EHCs.

The ministry said it was also in discussion with the European Commission and would welcome any flexibility EU border checkpoints might offer in dealing with SPS issues.

“We continue to work closely with the meat processing and veterinary industries to alleviate any pressure in the market,” the department added.

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