Two food agencies in the United Kingdom have voiced their concern about the lack of vets and the potential impact on the meat sector.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) urged the government and the veterinary profession to develop a sustainable approach to the UK’s vet capacity and capability.

FSS and FSA Official Veterinarians (OV) and Meat Hygiene Inspectors help to inspect every animal and carcass in abattoirs. OVs inspect animals before and after slaughter to identify diseases or conditions that could affect public or animal health.

Giving evidence to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA), Emily Miles, FSA chief executive, said there was an urgent need to address the lack of vets. 

The EFRA Committee examined whether the shortage of veterinary professionals had increased since 2018, when there was an 11 percent gap in the workforce.

A precarious current situation

After the session, Miles said: “The FSA’s ability to deliver OV-led inspections in abattoirs is under sustained pressure because of vet workforce shortages, putting at risk the high consumer trust we have in meat and animal welfare standards here.

“We rely on vets from overseas to do critical public health and animal welfare work in abattoirs, with very few UK-trained vets currently interested in doing this work. That is why the FSA asked for legislative reform, financial backing, a supportive immigration policy, and a systematic strategy to deliver rewarding and sustainable veterinary careers.”

In written evidence to the committee, the FSA said that if it cannot fully deliver official controls due to a lack of OV workforce, many meat plants wouldn’t be able to operate. This could present several risks, such as unsafe meat being placed on the market via other routes, reduced international trade in meat products, welfare issues for animals unable to move to slaughter, and a financial impact on companies through loss of earnings.

The FSA said current legislation is “out of date” and holding the sector back from having a more agile and modern workforce. After the EU exit, EU vets need to meet specific criteria around the English language and obtain a work visa.

Mitigating actions have been positive and delivered a more stable workforce. However, without long-term sustainable change to the system, the ability to protect animal health and welfare, food safety, and underpin international trade will remain precarious, said FSA.

FSA outsources its requirement for OVs, and a retender process is underway. The agency looked at direct employment but put these plans on hold due to issues including cost.

Scottish position

In written evidence to the committee, Food Standards Scotland said several issues, many as a consequence of EU exit, significantly adversely impact vet recruitment.

The agency said the ongoing staffing challenges, RCVS registration requirements, effects of the UK Government’s new immigration policy, and anticipated resource impacts from introducing a 35-hour week across the Scottish Government means the challenging situation can reach critical levels.

FSS has operated an in-house OV delivery model since September 2019. A recent hiring campaign seeking five OVs has so far only secured one trainee.

Throughout 2023, FSS had to backfill existing vacancies with temporary OVs supplied through the APHA veterinary agency framework at a higher cost to meet minimum requirements. A contingency plan designed for use in times of acute staff shortage ran almost continuously last year.

Geoff Ogle, Food Standards Scotland chief executive, said resourcing challenges contribute to difficulties and delays in recruiting sufficient OVs.

“Our OVs play a key role in securing high standards of animal welfare and ensuring meat produced by abattoirs or processing plants is handled safely and is in line with relevant food law,” he said.

“To put into context just how much we rely on overseas nationals for this important role, out of around 30 OVs employed by FSS, there is only one part-time UK national official within the team. As a result, supporting the meat industry and ensuring consumer protection means overseas recruitment remains vital in securing adequate staffing.”

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