All Creatures Great and Small Will Get Stuck at Brexit’s Border

(Bloomberg) -- For Colin Moore’s family-run fish bait business in southwestern England, eggs are essential. They stiffen a paste made of semolina, fishfeed and other flavorings so it can be rolled into boilies, which carp anglers across Europe love to toss into freshwater to make the huge oily fish easier to catch.

After Brexit, that one ingredient could cause Moore a big headache.

All European Union-bound exports consisting of animal products—even supplements made with whey protein or hair serum containing collagen from cows or pigs—may need to get certified by a vet to comply with EU health rules after the divorce. For C.C. Moore & Co., that’s up to 25 carp bait shipments a week, some as big as 5 tons in size.

Problem is, there’s already a shortage of animal doctors across the U.K. and the British Veterinary Association warns demand for services will more than quadruple unless Prime Minister Theresa May gets a deal exempting exporters from EU screening, which so far isn’t in the cards.

“I fear it would be absolutely unmanageable from the vet’s point of view,” said Moore, 48, who, along with his father and brother manages a family trade that goes back to the 18th century.

The crunch isn’t about pet doctors, but the vets who work in the less-stereotypical side of the profession inspecting goods at farms and slaughterhouses. There are about 550 now and, according to recruitment firm Eville & Jones, Britain would need as many as 400 more if all EU exports and imports require checks.

Hiring that many all at once would be daunting because nine out of 10 public health vets in Britain are nationals of other EU countries who won’t be able to relocate without a visa once the U.K. leaves the single market. Already since the Brexit vote, employee turnover has more than doubled to 25 percent, according to Veterinary Public Health Association figures.

“The government has done too little and it is almost too late now to prevent significant damage occurring,” said Jason Aldiss, managing director of Eville & Jones, which handles a lot of the government’s vet recruitment. He said relying on local graduates to fill vacancies isn’t an option either because most want to work in clinics nursing house pets back to health.

Vets checking non-EU imports at border crossings are already anxious that the additional workload might allow some unsafe foods to slip through. Some 7.4 billion pounds ($10 billion) of meat, fish, dairy and eggs now cross freely into the U.K. annually from the EU.

“The main concern is bringing in diseases,” said Patricia Gonzalez, who moved to Britain from Spain in 2001 during the foot-and mouth disease outbreak that led to the slaughter of some six million sheep, cattle and pigs and cost the U.K. government about 2.5 billion pounds. While the origin of the virus remains a mystery, some suspect it came via illegally imported meat from Asia.

Gonzalez, 42, recalled examples like this as she combed through packages at London’s Gatwick Airport one recent morning, including a box from Jamaica. It was rejected and sent to be destroyed.

“If we had a huge increase in the number of consignments at the moment, no, we don’t have the structure, the facilities, or the qualified people” to handle it, said Gonzalez, who’s seen everything from salmonella to spiders crawling over food in her years patrolling U.K. borders.

Unless the U.K. changes its negotiating position, or the EU agrees to give Britain special treatment once it leaves the single market and customs union, the vet conundrum will become reality.

Barring another arrangement, at some point after December 2020, or March 2019 in the worst-case scenario of no deal, Britain will become a so-called third country in the eyes of the EU. Under EU rules, most animal products coming in from third countries need health certificates signed by vets. To get a sense of the potential magnitude, 60 percent of U.K. agricultural food exports go to the EU.

“There would be so much hassle involved with obtaining our products for a customer in France, Italy, Czech Republic, wherever, that they probably wouldn’t bother,” said Moore at the fish bait plant.

British carp bait currently has an edge among the company’s dozens of European clients because of quality, but if prices go up and shipments are delayed, there are alternatives elsewhere in Europe, he said.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency assured that Brexit negotiators are considering the toll the vet shortage would have on exporters. The quandary was also flagged in a parliamentary report in February—and U.K. government officials are in the midst of talks on what future customs arrangements might look like.

“From day one we are committed to having in place a robust and effective regulatory regime which will mean business can continue as normal,” the FSA said in a statement, adding food safety was a “top priority.”

But quality control will inevitably be harder if the U.K. loses access to the bloc’s border-inspection database, TRACES. The log prevents importers rejected at one EU border in, say Italy, from then trying to sneak their goods in through another member state.

Aside from Britain, the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, estimates it will need 90 extra doctors to conduct animal-control checks of incoming U.K. products. Since vets are hard to find, it’s appealing for less-qualified staff to be allowed to carry out some of those.

It’s precisely the health and hygiene risks that have at least one group hoping the vet predicament will work in its favor. The U.K. Vegan Society is trying to convince the government to rethink food and farming policy to boost incentives for growing plant proteins like chickpeas, beans and lentils.

“Animal agriculture is inherently unsustainable and wasteful,” said Louise Davies, the group’s head of campaigns and policy. Brexit “presents an opportunity to rethink our broken food system.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

Bloomberg
Stay Updated With Business News News On BloombergQuint