The UK’s pet food industry is struggling to export to the EU because of red tape, vet shortages and hauliers refusing to accept animal-based products in case they are stopped at the border.
According to a survey of the industry carried out by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, concluded in mid-February, only one-third of businesses that attempted exports to Europe in 2021 had been successful.
Michael Bellingham, chief executive of the PFMA, said that confusion over paperwork and a lack of detailed knowledge from government officials was hitting the EU export sector worth £285m a year. “Two-thirds of members are not getting their product through. It’s a big issue,” he said.
The pet food industry is the latest to flag up difficulties exporting to the EU, warning that applying rest-of-world trade processes to just-in-time EU trade that crosses multiple borders is creating a structural impediment to doing business. Their complaints echo similar frustrations from other food industries, such as shellfish and mussel exporters, pork as well as gin and whisky distillers.
“The level of detail required is disproportionate to the benefit of exporting. Being asked to supply farm postcodes and kill dates associated with the postcodes is a non-starter,” said one respondent to the PFMA survey, referring to the need to provide detailed data on the source of pet food products.
Peter Kersh, the managing director of World Feeds Ltd, a small business near Doncaster, Yorkshire, said his business was successfully exporting to the US but had hit multiple roadblocks in trying to move products into the EU since January 1.
The company, which exports high-tech fish food to aquariums around the world, is currently waiting to see whether a £10,000 test consignment to Norway will need to be incinerated because the haulier did not complete customs checks properly on entry into Sweden.
The failed consignment was part of a trial for a Norwegian fish farm customer for a new business opportunity that Kersh estimates could be worth £1m a year to the company, which exports 35 per cent of its product to EU countries.
“A third of my business is now at risk,” he said, warning that companies could not afford to be unreliable against their EU competitors. “If we don’t get this product up to Norway then big customers will just use something else.”
The complex web of haulage and distribution hubs that make up the EU market mean that it is far harder to export to Europe than to the US, Kersh said.
New customs checks introduced following the EU-UK trade deal, which came into force on January 1, have made it harder for hauliers to carry loads of multiple products, known as “groupage”.
The EU also requires complex “export health certificates”, often completed in multiple languages if a product is transiting across borders, where a single error can result in a shipment being stopped or destroyed.
Vets signing off EHCs need shipping dates, vehicle registration and trucking routes when signing the certificates — none of which trucking companies can provide. “Freight companies won’t commit to a route beforehand, so we’re stuck. It’s ridiculous and has to be sorted,” he said.
Rod McKenzie, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, confirmed that mixed loads continued to present a huge challenge for small exporters across industry.
“When it comes to customs, groupage is the toughest nut of all to crack. It’s a big headache for all businesses that can’t fill a whole truck. For these smaller businesses, the red tape becomes a nightmare,” he said.
Shortage of vets is also an issue. The PFMA found that many official veterinarians were “unwilling to take on the extra work of certifying” animal byproduct consignments because they were not confident about what was required.
The UK agriculture ministry, Defra, said it is confident that there are sufficient vets to manage demand, but this has been challenged by the British Veterinary Association as it prepares for the EU to bring in new Export Health Certificates on April 21 that will require additional products to be certified.
Defra said the government was working to increase the number of official vets: “We’ve always been clear that there would be new processes for traders, and we continue to support them in their transition to these new arrangements,” it added.