A coalition in the United Kingdom has called for an agreement with Europe on post-Brexit food rules.

The Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Certification working group, which includes food, pet food and feed trade associations, said there was a need for a veterinary agreement with the EU to reduce the administrative burden and certification costs.

Organizations also suggested digitization of paper systems and certainty they would be accepted by receiving border control posts in EU member states and Northern Ireland.

They estimated that new Export Health Certificate (EHC) requirements have cost at least £60 million ($80.5 million) in paperwork in less than one year, with 288,000 EHC applications requiring the equivalent of 580,000 certifier hours. Data from the Animal and Plant Health Agency shows that applications for food-related EHCs climbed from 22,990 in 2020 to 288,558 in 2021.

Vet shortage and export costs
Chair of the working group, Karin Goodburn, who is also director at the Chilled Food Association, said the situation is only going to get worse without action and there are no quick fixes.

“As an example it takes more than five years to train the vets required we need to certify the EHCs. These already disturbing figures are in fact an underestimate of the total cost to the industry as they exclude bulk orders of EHCs from the Animal and Plant Health Agency made in one request and the wider costs of Brexit SPS requirements,” she said.

The number of EU vets registering to work in the UK has dropped by two-thirds with the sector in the UK already stretched. Data from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons shows the amount of registrants coming to work in the UK fell from 1,132 in 2019 to 364 in 2021.

This has affected the availability of qualified staff to certify the paperwork required for export to the EU and elsewhere in the world, according to the group.

Kate Thompson, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) director for Wales, said there are also limits on the EHCs that can be signed by environmental health professionals.

“We would like to see a SPS/veterinary agreement with the EU that could assist in reducing these burdens, and in supporting trade,” she said. “These pressures are going to increase significantly when checks on imports are introduced in July. Within the UK and Ireland, the environmental health workforce is highly qualified and alongside vets, have the training, knowledge, and skills, to undertake this work.”

As a result of the new costs, some food businesses can no longer afford to export to the EU. This means that companies have stopped trading with what had been their largest export market. Short shelf-life foods are particularly impacted by the additional demands, said the working group.

According to the Food and Drink Federation, UK exports of these products were down £2.7 billion ($3.6 billion) in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. This includes a drop in sales to the EU of £2.4 billion ($3.2 billion), possibly because of new barriers to trade and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UK starting checks soon
There are also more requirements for composite foods, at abattoirs, new IT and software systems, and staff needing training in new skills, said the organizations.

Richard Griffiths, British Poultry Council chief executive, said members are having problems on a daily basis.

“Government have continually expressed that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement allows British businesses to trade freely with the EU, but this is not reflective in the real-world impact of third country trading. From vet shortages, to mile-long-queues at Dover to trading under bird flu, it is clear the current system is not designed for third countries to trade freely with the EU,” he said.

The coalition also called for certainty for traders on introduction of veterinary controls by the UK in July and November to ensure there is a level playing field between the UK and EU on exports and imports.

Full checks on imports of food, live animals and animal products from the EU will come into force beginning in July 2022, having been postponed four times.

On March 1, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA), George Eustice, David Kennedy from DEFRA and four industry representatives are scheduled to be questioned about imports from the EU by the EFRA Committee.

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