The Government must ensure vets continue to play a role in food import and export certification to protect the UK’s high standards, says British Veterinary Association (BVA) president John Fishwick.
There are many questions surrounding Brexit, with those around our future trading relationships among the most discussed, but still the least addressed.
Policy makers seem aware of the broad issues such as borders and customs, but there has been little progress on the details which need to be in place to offer solutions.
Both the farming community and the veterinary profession are deeply affected by the uncertainty surrounding trade and concerned about some of the scenarios which could play out, depending on the type of Brexit that ultimately appears.
As vets, our concerns are primarily around maintaining the high standards we have in safety, traceability and welfare in the animal-derived foods we both export and import.
These standards help prevent the spread of pathogens and diseases in animal products, ensure farm animals have a humane end to life, protect food safety and safeguard responsible antimicrobial use.
We also want to see a thriving farming sector able to trade high-quality produce which meets these standards with the rest of the world.
When the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer enjoy the same trading freedom with the EU as it enjoys as a member state.
As a result, new trading arrangements for meat and agricultural products could trigger an increase in the number of veterinary export certifications by as much as 325 per cent.
Unless a comprehensive deal is negotiated where regulatory alignment on animal health and food safety standards are retained, it is likely that checks will need to be in place at the border for biosecurity purposes.
A recent LSE report commissioned by Arla foods on the Brexit and the dairy sector estimates there could be an increased workload for vets at border checks of around 372 per cent and warns there is ‘no certainty the system will continue to function adequately given these additional pressures’.
This is a particular concern around the future of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
There needs to be clarity on who might undertake these border inspections, but they must entail veterinary involvement and, considering there is already a shortage of qualified veterinary surgeons throughout the UK before Brexit, this could be a major problem.
Demand to place more vets at ports will add pressure to the workforce shortage across the veterinary profession.
This will be particularly true for Official Veterinarians in abattoirs and, as such, there has been debate about the necessity for vets to perform this certification role.
In order to guarantee the safety and security of food and provide assurance for consumers at home and abroad, the BVA believes vets must continue to participate in certification.
They are not alone in this belief: The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has recognised veterinary services and certification as ‘fundamental’ for food safety, while the Veterinary Public Health Association has recently stated it cannot support any move that would weaken and compromise current veterinary certification requirements.
Whatever route trade negotiations take, we must maintain the UK’s high standards of animal health, animal welfare and public health in food production by ensuring vets continue to provide certification and make sure we have enough vets with the right skills to perform this vital task.