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'Resourcing crisis' could hit exports after January 1, NPA warns in joint letter

8th Dec 2020 / By Alistair Driver

The NPA has joined forces with a number of industry bodies to signal ‘urgent concern about the continued unpreparedness of the key agencies’ that should be supporting food exporters ahead of the end of the EU Transition Period.

ShipIn a letter to Defra Secretary George Eustice, the organisations, which also include the NFU, the British Meat Processors Association and the Food and Drink Federation, warn of a veterinary ‘resourcing crisis’ and call for ‘urgent action’ to support exporters of Products of Animal Origin after January 1, 2021.

The letter, signed by NPA chief executive Zoe Davies, warns that if the outstanding issues are not resolved, export volumes could be reduced to between a quarter and a half of current levels in 2021.  

The letter points out that in 2019, the UK meat exports were worth £2.6b, with dairy exports valued at £2.5bn and fish at £2.3bn, trade that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across England.

UK businesses exporting food to the EU are facing ‘an exponential increase in red tape to comply with EU third country rules’, the letter adds.  

“We understand that ultimate responsibility is on businesses to prepare to ensure they are legally compliant if they wish to continue to trade after January 1, 2021. We also accept that some of the existing supply chain arrangements, especially those involving just-in-time delivery constraints or complex arrangements, will have to reorganise in order to continue once the UK is outside the EU single market.

“We do not have unrealistic expectations about the continuation of the status quo. However, we believe that UK Government has to play its part, not just in providing guidance and advice, but to get directly involved in supporting the process by which food achieves the necessary certification to be ready for export to the EU (or any other market).”

Resource crisis

The imminent ‘resource crisis’ includes a lack of vets as certifying officers to meet the ‘exponential increase in demand that there will be across the food supply chain on January 1.

Although the number of qualified Official Veterinarians doubled in just over a year to around 1,200 in September 2020, the organisations say there is no clarity on how many of these vets have undertaken the relevant training and will actually be employed in meeting the estimated ten-fold increase in demand for export health certificates from the start of next year.

“We do know the vast majority will not be working full time on this and will be attending to other practice duties. This resource crisis is compounded by the unnecessary, complex, and costly attestation process you have proposed to underpin the new certification requirements,” the letter adds.

While some schemes have been set up to help post-EU Exit trade, these are ‘too complex and confusing’, the organistions say, calling for ‘more decisive policy action to both increase certification resource and simplify the export process’.

“If this does not happen then we expect there to be a reduction of between 50 and 75% in the volume of trade to the EU (especially to Ireland and Northern Ireland) in the months after the January 1, 2021. We fear that once this trade is lost it will be extremely difficult to recover.”

The letter calls for a number of actions, including:

  • Instructing and financially supporting all OVs employed (directly or indirectly) by the Food Standards Agency or other government agency to play a direct role in supporting the export certification process for products of animal origin.
  • Use the authority of APHA to significantly simplify the guidance on how official veterinarians at the last point of departure before export can rely on existing controls as the basis for having confidence to certify the products for export. There is a fundamental point of confidence – either the UK authorities believe that our inspection and compliance regime for food safety is robust, or it does not.
  • Revise the rules on what inspection and verification must be done by an OV, and what can be done by an appropriately trained and supervised Certification Support Officer. The use of CSOs is an entirely logical way to scale up the capacity to facilitate UK exporters of the lowest risk food categories, whilst ensuring there is supervision and control of our processes.

The letter concludes: “We believe these three actions, alongside the successful conclusion of a zero-tariff trade agreement, are vital if UK Government is to avert a crisis for our meat, dairy and other POAO exporters.

“We are already at a very late stage and these businesses are suffering. We urge you to act to ensure that crucial UK businesses, jobs and trade links can take place in 2021 and beyond.”