Defra does not have enough staff to open up new markets for UK meat and dairy products, according to industry bodies.
Katie Doherty, policy director at the International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), raised the alarm during an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee hearing about the promotion of British food and drink.
She explained that the process of getting access to a new market like China involves several steps, such as completing questionnaires which require huge amounts of data to be collated and having UK controls or plants inspected by the country receiving future exports.
“It is having staffing in Defra to be able to be complete those questionnaires to get the process started,” she said.
“For meat globally, we do need that additional resource from Government. It is not something industry can do, because a lot of it is Government-to-Government discussions.”
Asked directly whether Defra had enough resource to carry out this work, Ms Doherty said ‘no’, pointing out for poultry, the same team was responsible for opening up new markets and re-gaining access to existing ones after the recent UK outbreaks of bird flu.
She also raised concerns about staffing at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is responsible for facilitating inspections of controls, and the increased need for veterinary certification after Brexit, when imports from and exports to the EU will require Export Health Certificates (EHCs).
“The meat sector has a concern about our ongoing access to the EU market, and it is an urgent issue,” Ms Doherty said.
Sandra Sullivan, from the Food and Drink Exporters Association, told MPs on the committee that dairy products faced a similar problem.
“Any animal product needs a certificate from the vet,” she said.
“There is worry among the exporting community that the sheer scale of the need to get new vets has been underestimated.
“We had a major retailer at one of our events recently who is exporting thousands of lines weekly, and if he needs a veterinary certificate for every animal product, that is a problem.”
Defra told Farmers Guardian the Government was preparing for increases in future demand for EHCs after Brexit, and said resource planning takes into account increased demand alongside ongoing activity to ensure a smooth continuation of existing trade.
A spokesman added: “Outside the EU, we will develop a trade policy which allows farmers to seize global exporting opportunities and take advantage of the growing demand for our great British produce.”