The EU’s refusal to accept “equivalence” of standards for certain UK agri-food products, together with excessive bureaucracy for exporters, are threatening the profitability of the British food and farming sector, a House of Lords committee has warned.
According to the Lords’ EU Environment sub-committee, current cross-Channel trade is being stymied by red tape, with some business grinding to a halt since the start of the year.
Its report points particularly to Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) measures, which are considered to be tougher for UK exporters even than for New Zealand exporters, who do not have any preferential trade deal with the EU.
“The increases in paperwork and preparation required for food and agricultural exports to the EU are presenting very difficult challenges, particularly for small businesses,” said sub-committee chairman Lord Teverson.
“This could ultimately reduce the profitability of Great Britain’s food and agricultural produce sectors.”
The report explains that, while organic food production has been granted “equivalence” status as part of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TAC), seed potatoes, certified seed and some types of fresh and processed meat have not.
As such, they are currently excluded from the EU market.
Under the TAC, a so-called Trade Specialised Committee on SPS Measures is supposed to be set up, to iron out such issues. But so far this has not been established.
“We are frustrated by the delay… and we urge the government to work with the European Commission to set up the committee swiftly,” says the report.
It also highlights numerous instances where increased bureaucracy is creating difficulties for exporters, with physical checks, pre-notification, export health certificates and labelling requirements all slowing things down.
“All add cost in agricultural supply chains that are designed to be ‘just in time’ with little room for slippage and where margins are already squeezed,” the AHDB told the Lords’ investigation.
Dominic Goudie of the Food and Drink Federation added that much of the paperwork involved manual form filling.
“As far as export health certificates and rules of origin are concerned, a lot of work is still paper-based,” he is quoted as saying.
As such, the Lords suggest fully electronic certification should be a top priority and the government should move quickly to update and integrate systems.
Another cause of concern is the availability of vets, especially to sign off export heath certificates – required to underwrite the health of live animals and animal products being shipped to the EU.
Despite government recruitment, the British Veterinary Association estimates that a further 350 vets are required.
However, the report suggests Defra secretary George Eustice is in favour of allowing either technical managers or “para-professionals” to undertake this work, to reduce the load on highly qualified vets.
“The government should explore with the EU and other trade partners whether the requirement for export health certificates to carry a vet’s signature could be removed or adapted,” says the report.