BVA president James Russell told Food Manufacture that under the current system from 1 January 2021 all consignments of products exported to the EU containing components of animal origin would need EHCs. That would include a range of goods, from meat cuts, eggs and dairy products such as cheese or butter to products such as pizzas or ready meals containing meat, dairy or poultry components.
The situation would apply regardless of whether or not the UK clinched a free trade agreement with the EU, according to Russell. Previously the paperwork had only been needed for food exported to non-EU countries.
The current system requires Official Veterinarians (OVs) to inspect consignments and sign EHCs. Russell acknowledged OV numbers had doubled in the past year to 1,200. As a consequence, on paper it looked like there was enough capacity to handle the estimated fivefold increase in EHC volumes to 300,000 a year in a reasonable case scenario after the Brexit transition period expired on 31 December.
Increases in volume of Export Health Certificates
However, Russell stressed this did not account for larger increases in the volume of EHCs. He added that many OVs also conducted their EHC work in addition to other veterinary roles, which could be based hundreds of miles from where their food industry services were needed.
"Those people who have taken those qualifications are at the moment gainfully employed doing other work and may do some export work in and around their other work. Also, we need to have the right people in the right place at the right time in order to complete these certificates."
Russell also acknowledged the scheme to recruit certification support officers (CSOs) to help with the EHC paperwork, but continued: "Our understanding is that CSO recruitment is still low. Even when it's there, the workforce still needs time to prepare to understand how the CSO works with the OV."
He said there was already a general shortage of vets anyway. "We don't see a huge amount of capacity within the veterinary profession at the moment, in fact quite the opposite. A recent survey of the members employers group showed that 12% of vacancies remain unfilled, so we're not in a situation where we have hundreds or even dozens of vets just sloshing around the system."
He also said many OVs started off their careers as non-UK nationals and there were concerns about the flow of staff from that demographic into these jobs. An established route into becoming a qualified OV is through being a meat hygiene inspector. From 1 January, the Government will require non-UK resident MHIs to gain a visa and hit salary thresholds to live and work in the UK.
93 days until transition period expires
Even without these complications, it would take many months to years to become sufficiently competent to be an OV, said Russell. The UK has 93 days until the Brexit transition period expires.
Russell's comments came after a statement from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) again warned: "Michael Gove’s warnings of two-day lorry queues at our ports describe just one part of the problem exporters will face on 31 December.
"After that date, every single consignment of meat or meat-based products, from steaks and sausages to beef curries and Hawaiian pizzas will need an OV to inspect it and sign an EHC before it can leave the factory. Problem is: Britain doesn’t have enough vets."
"Until now, only a small fraction of total overseas consignments have needed a Vet inspection (those going to non-EU countries). After 31 December, every small, just-in-time mixed load of products to the EU will need one."
The BMPA and the BVA both said they had repeatedly warned the Government about this problem virtually since the day the result of the Brexit vote was announced on 24 June 2016.
'Preparing to lay the blame with industry'
"Worse, Michael Gove in a leaked letter to industry bodies last week seems to be preparing to lay the blame with industry for not being properly prepared," the BMPA stated. It was referring to the infamous letter seen by national newspapers last week warning of 7,000-strong lorry queues in Kent from next year.
BMPA chief executive Nick Allen said: “We have been pressing the Government for three years now to lay out the details of exactly how these barriers to trade will be dealt with. They have known since the beginning that we will need an army of extra qualified vets to cope with the 500% increase in workload.”
Mr Allen added that “all the guidance in the world is useless if we are not able to complete required export paperwork because of a chronic shortage of vets". "If this is not addressed, £175m per month of meat exports will be at risk.
“The bottom line is that British companies cannot prepare effectively for Brexit because the UK Government is not keeping to its side of the bargain by putting in place the right measures and resources and failing to give us the answers we desperately need."