Shipments of meat, such as lamb, bacon and sausages, between Britain and the European Union will be disrupted next year even with a Brexit trade deal, as a shortage of veterinarians and a mountain of paperwork disrupt supply lines.
Under the temporary transition period in force since Britain's departure from the EU at the end of January, meat imports and exports flow freely between the major trading partners.
But from 1 January 2021, vets will be required to conduct detailed examinations and issue documents certifying that British exports of animal products meet the health requirements of the European Union.
British sausages, burgers and other 'meat preparations' will also be banned from the EU unless frozen.
New rules will also apply to EU exports coming into Britain.
Britain's food, feed and drink exports to EU totalled £14.2 billion ($18.92 billion) in 2019, while imports were worth £33.7 billion, British government data show.
Lamb is among the most important of Britain's meat exports with around one-third of production traded abroad, mostly to the EU.
On the flip side, Britain imports about 60% of the pigmeat it consumes with the Netherlands the top supplier of bacon and hams, followed by Denmark. Germany is the most important source of sausages.
British government estimates point to a 'five-fold increase' in the number of certificates required for the smooth export of British meat and livestock.
Shipping and trade sources say Britain is not prepared and disruptions are also expected in European hubs such as Antwerp, Rotterdam and Calais.
"The longer the delays, the more risk there is to the fresh food that farmers on both sides produce," said Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association, which represents 30,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses in England and Wales.
"Member states such as France may check every shipment of animal products, to comply with phytosanitary measures. Even if they decide not to, there is still going to be significant room for delay."
Britain's farming and environment ministry said in a statement that the country has prepared for the expected surge in paperwork by providing funds for more vets to become Official Veterinarians (OVs), the qualification required to make the checks, and 1,300 have this status, up from 600 previously.
For many, however, this work will add to an already heavy load. Britain faces its worst winter for bird flu for several years, as well as bovine tuberculosis, and the country is alert to the potential threat of African Swine Fever.
James Russell, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said it was not yet clear which diseases exports needed to be shown to be free from, with details expected to be announced this week.
There is also pressure on the supply of vets in Britain as many are EU nationals from countries such as Spain.
"There are less new people coming in as well as some going home," the BVA's Russell said, noting the meat sector was particularly dominated by EU nationals as British graduates generally found clinical work more attractive.
In some cases, relationships between vets and exporters have yet to be developed.
"A section of the industry has been sitting tight and not really making plans anticipating there would be a deal, meaning they would not need to engage in this process," he said.
Britain's lamb producers are the most vulnerable to any disruption as the sector is dependent on exports to EU countries, such as France and Germany. Britain is the world's third-largest exporter of the meat.
"If we go on bad terms, the EU could put a lot of hurdles in place and make it very difficult for us to get the products into the EU," said Mark Williams, a sheep and beef farmer in mid-Wales. "It is a very dangerous territory to be in."
While new paperwork for British exports to the EU will be needed from 1 January, for imports into Britain, there will be a phase-in period of a few months.
"Because of COVID, the UK has opted to implement a staged approach to import controls both for customs and phytosanitary controls," said Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association.
"This still leaves a big doubt for outbound traffic (from Britain to the EU)... all those animal and plant-based products will be subject to the controls," he added.
"From July, it is fair to say not all the (British) infrastructure looks like it will be ready."
Scramble To Boost Vet Capacity
There has been a similar scramble to boost vet capacity in the EU.
The Netherlands is employing around 900 extra officials, including 143 for the Dutch Food Safety Authority, most of the veterinary experts, to carry out checks on plants, animals, and meat.
Finding the personnel proved tough, with candidates drawn from eastern and southern Europe. As well as specialist training, they had to learn Dutch.
Belgium's Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain has separately recruited an extra 115 people, including 31 vets but has limited insight into what to expect.
"It makes it difficult to know how best to place people. We can be flexible, but we will have to see over the first couple of months," said the agency’s head of international affairs Leslie Lambregts.