Richard North, 25/03/2021  

Finally, at long last, the British Meat Processors Association have realised they have a problem with Brexit, having published a report entitled, "UK Meat Industry Brexit Impact Report".

But, even then, they don't seem to have worked out precisely what has hit them, telling the world that the British meat industry has felt the impact of Brexit more than most, "because our export system was never designed to cope with the next day, just-in-time food supply chain that we built up over the last 30 years with our nearest neighbour".

If ever there was an example of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, this is it. The export system the industry is currently having to work with isn't "our" system. Strictly speaking, it isn't even an export system. It's an import system, and it belongs to the EU.

And indeed, this import system was never designed to cope with the next day, just-in-time food supply chain that the UK has built up over the last 30 years. That was what the Single Market was for and, now we have left it, the industry is stuck with the third country system and a new set of rules.

Now, looking past the temporary "teething problems", the Association has realised that, for the industry, this third country system has "systemic problems" which it estimates is costing the industry an estimated £90-120 million a year.

The increased costs cover customs declarations, the need to employ customs agents, freight forwarders and additional veterinary inspection, but don't take into account the extra "hidden" costs from higher freight insurance, extra administrative staff and higher haulage charges to compensate for longer delays.

Collectively, though, the costs are rendering certain exports un-viable and, to add insult to injury, the Association does not believe that it will be possible to replace lost trade by sending product to markets further afield.

The nature of the fast-moving, high-value chilled fresh food trade we have with Europe, it says, cannot be replicated with countries that are not on our doorstep. And although it doesn't say so, nor are there alternative openings for the rubbish end of the market – the culled breeding sows, the pigs' rind and the offal which is difficult to sell in this country.

But, if this is the "light-bulb" moment, the Association hasn't yet got to the stage where it has begun to understand that it has just described, the new normal. The "systemic problems" are here to stay.

Sadly, therefore, it has produced its report in order to form "the basis of a comprehensive discussion and ultimate overhaul of the current export certification system", in what is actually the forlorn hope that it will support "future trade with our nearest and biggest trading partner".

One major area it picks on is the UK provision for inspection and certification The current UK export certification system, it says, relies on a small pool of fully qualified vets to inspect and sign off all products of animal origin leaving UK shores.

This, it complains, applies equally to whole lamb carcases or to a consignment of Hawaiian pizzas, adding that "there are simply not enough vets to process the volume of checks and paperwork needed to maintain the export volumes we've been used to.

It doubtless will come as something of a surprise to mere mortals that we need vets to certify Hawaiian pizzas for export, but so entrenched is this absurdity that the industry has ceased to understand quite how mad it is.

Instead, it complains that, in the UK, "we have a privatised and expensive veterinary industry for whose scarce services meat companies are now having to bid against each other. Now more vets are needed to do more checks, this has pushed up the cost of production and made British companies less competitive.

The Association also remarks that our prospective trading partners including the US are quite uncomfortable with a certification system that relies on a commercial relationship with private certifiers, instead of an arms-length, Government appointed certifying authority – even though this system has been in place since the 1960s, for exports, and has been accepted for the best part of 60 years by the EU and its predecessor iterations.

But what troubles me is that, despite the long and contested history of this absurd development, the Association seems to have no idea of how to deal with it or any sensible suggestions for a workable system in the UK.

Instead, it bleats about learning "from other countries whose systems are much more flexible and which provide appropriate checks at each stage of the supply chain by a variety of Government employed veterinarians and other auxiliaries trained to perform different levels of checks", citing Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, which is says "are able to provide certification services very efficiently and cost-effectively".

You might have thought that, with the current mad system in the UK having developed over such a long period, that there might be reasons why it has evolved in such a way, and not followed down the paths set by the three examples it has given.

However, having obviously been asleep for the last 60 years, the industry will have to learn the hard way. The first problem it has to deal with is that UK vets are not the same as their continental namesakes. The veterinary public health tradition here is an unpopular, minority specialism, which few UK qualified vets are prepared to undertake.

Secondly, when one takes the two examples of Netherlands and Denmark, these are very small countries with very large animal product exports. They have, therefore, a number of large plants dedicated to export, where it is economic to employ full-time veterinary inspectors.

A similar situation does not arise in the UK where the bulk of production is for domestic consumption and the plants are extremely varied in throughput, with many exporting only intermittently, while at the same time being widely dispersed in a very much larger country.

Long experience has shown that it is impossible to work with a cadre of full-time government vets; there simply isn't enough work for them to do within a reasonable radius. They either spend most of their time travelling, or are expensively under-employed. The only way to cope with the absurdity of veterinary pizza inspectors is to use local, private veterinary contractors.

As for Germany, this has a very different tradition, where so-called fleischermeister (master butchers) are a regulated profession and, in small-scale operations, are exempted from the absurdity of veterinary supervision. Thus, the EU-style system only operates in the larger plants.

Interestingly, the Association doesn't point to the Polish system, which – like the UK – uses part time private vets for food control, where their salaries are dependent on them not being so severe on the plants they supervise, otherwise they shut down and the vets lose their incomes.

Neither do we see the Italian system held up as an example. Described here, it comprises a chaotic mixture of central, regional and local agencies, with no internal logic.

Local control is split between the medical doctor-led Hygiene and Nutrition Service (SIAN), responsible for food of non-animal origin and the Local Veterinary Services (LVS), responsible for animal health; animal welfare; food of animal origin; and feeding stuffs.

But there is also the Health Protection Unit of the Carabinieri (NAS) - uniformed paramilitary police who are involved in the delivery of official controls, and food safety matters which include the adulteration of food and food fraud. Duplication and overlap is common, while local field assistants are poorly qualified and have difficulty certifying complex hygiene systems.

Basically, the EU and its predecessors have spent decades trying and failing to impose ill-thought-out systems on the disparate member states and third country suppliers, impeding the organic development of coherent food safety systems.

And while countries such as New Zealand and Argentina, which have large, dedicated export plants geared to satisfying the specific requirements of their customers, the way our industry has evolved means that it is not structured in a way that it can easily, or at all, cope with EU export requirements outside the Single Market.

In a way, therefore, the UK meat industry is the touchstone for the rest of the UK's export effort. It is finding out the hard way that, outside the Single Market, much of its business has evaporated. Firms must either restructure or go under.

Clearly, the British Meat Processors Association has not yet learnt that their "systemic problems" are not bugs but a feature of the system they must now live with. As yet, the lightbulb burns dim.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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