Britain is running out of time to prepare for a big increase in red tape that must accompany uk food exports to the eu from next year, industry groups are warning.
Under strict eu food hygiene laws, and following the expiry of the brexit transition period on december 31, uk exports of animal and plant products must come with health certificates issued by a registered vet, known as an official veterinarian.
But simon doherty, a council member at the british veterinary association, a trade body, said the failure of the government to provide full details of the checks on agri-food that would be required from january 1 was making it extremely difficult for vets to prepare.
He added the industry was clamouring for clarity from the agriculture ministry on the post-brexit regime.
The anticipated rise in red tape stems from how the eu is the uks main trading partner in agri-food. the eu accounts for 60 per cent of uk exports, worth 24bn a year, according to uk in a changing europe, a think-tank.
The british veterinary association warned in may it was unlikely there would be sufficient vets to meet the demand for health certificates on uk agri-food exports after the brexit transition period ends.
George eustice, agriculture minister, told mps on tuesday that it was estimated that up to 300,000 health certificates would be required each year from january 1: a fivefold increase on current levels.
He said the uk had doubled the number of official veterinarians to 1,200 since february 2019, and added more than 100 support officers.
Vets from the animal and plant health agency, a government body, could also be pressed into service in the event of staff shortages, said mr eustice. tamara finkelstein, the top civil servant at the agriculture ministry, said she was confident there would be enough veterinary capacity.
But jason aldiss, former managing director of eville & jones, the largest government contractor currently providing health certificates on uk food exports, said the agriculture ministry had failed to grasp the scale of the challenge.
The government doesnt really understand the limitations in the vet community and hasnt reached out to them in a meaningful way, added mr aldiss.
Dominic goudie, head of international trade at the food and drink federation, a trade body, said the availability of vets was a critically important issue for uk exporters.
While it is encouraging to hear the number of available vets is likely to increase before the end of the transition period, serious questions remain about the uks readiness, he added.
A meeting on thursday of the veterinary public health association, a division of british veterinary association, was told that after the brexit transition period uk exporters would struggle to adapt to the raft of eu food hygiene rules.
These include requiring animals to remain on the same farm for 40 days before slaughter, testing for diseases like tuberculosis, and sending many cuts of meat overseas frozen rather than fresh.
Uk-eu negotiations on a future relationship deal are entering a critical phase, with eu leaders due to take a view next month on whether a trade agreement is possible between the two sides.
Such a deal could help to reduce the burden of checks on uk agri-food exports if it replicated other eu agreements with countries such as canada.
But the eu has so far not offered britain some of the most sought-after co-operation arrangements in the canada deal that would simplify uk export procedures.
Mr doherty said the eleventh hour nature of the uk-eu trade deal talks was frustrating both vets and industry bodies.
If the regulatory regime had all been agreed 12 to 18 months ago and we had...a deal that will move us forward, then we could work out the amount of official veterinarians and support officers we needed, he added.
The cbi, the business lobby group, has said that a health certificate for an uk animal or plant product could cost a british exporter anywhere between 200 and 900 since vets are paid for their time, not per document.
Mr doherty added that the costs of certification would make some low-margin food products commercially unviable.
The agriculture ministry said intensive planning was under way to ensure business was ready for the end of the brexit transition period, including establishing for uk exporters an online application service for health certificates.
We are working closely with vets and food producers to ensure they are ready for the uks new chapter, added a spokesperson.