OVs and international trade - Veterinary Practice
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OVs and international trade

What is the role of OVs in international trade, and how might this change after the UK’s exit from the EU?

There was a noticeable overseas aspect to the OV Conference this year. Not only was the theme ‘safeguarding international trade through disease control and surveillance’, but many languages were overheard as the delegates passed from the seminar rooms to coffee and refreshments via the exhibition area.

This conference is well-attended by vets within the State Veterinary Service and the statistic related to non-UK graduates within the service was very evident.

Mauricio Lopez (APHA) is involved in developing and implementing international trade policies and he left the audience in no doubt about the sensitivities of market access. His experience is that trade agreements take a long time to arrange and they are built on trust that the various tests and standards are effectively and honestly applied. OVs underwrite international standards and are the guarantors of official controls. One error can undermine an agreement and threaten future trade.

Reputation is everything. Other countries see the current UK approach of paying private vets to act on behalf of government as being a conflict of interest. It is very important that OVs remain impartial, professional and independent.

Potential areas of conflict are involvement with a relative or partner, being an employee, having a financial interest and an exporter contributing a significant percentage of the OV’s income. Any potential conflicts of interest should be discussed with APHA so that certification is seen as being ‘cleaner than clean’.

Advice from APHA and the Royal College is readily available and the onus is on the OV to consider any issues and ‘get it right’. It is a reality that one faulty export can start a countrywide ban. An example is the export of wild venison and rabbit to Singapore where a certificate for farmed meat was submitted – the consignment was destroyed. Sorting errors and their aftermath ‘wastes’ official resources.

In the year to March 2017, 18,160 certificates were inspected and 947 (5.21%) had errors. The speaker highlighted ‘reckless certification’ that leads to a loss of trust, loss of trade, increased scrutiny by trading partners, a possible countrywide ban and disciplinary procedures for the OV. Brexit means the UK is coming under increased scrutiny.

Nick Perkins (Veterinary Defence Society), recalling his experiences as an OV in practice and now being aware of legal and other aspects from working with the Society, indicated that vets generally put in a great deal of effort to ‘get it right’. It is important to recognise that anything that is signed as a veterinary surgeon, or as an OV, becomes a certificate. An online tick box is still a certificate. TB test results certify that the test is conducted within the instructions laid down and that any other form of test is a false certification. Fitness to travel and emergency slaughter certificates can arise suddenly and take place in difficult and highly-stressed situations.

It is not always possible for a veterinary surgeon to be right with certification, but it is important to demonstrate that enough care has been taken. “Don’t be rushed; step back and think”; “trust your instincts – if you are questioning that what you are being asked to do is correct, you probably shouldn’t be doing it”.

It is not always possible for a veterinary surgeon to be right with certification, but it is important to demonstrate that enough care has been taken

The advice is to refer to the RCVS and the 10 principles of certification, ask a colleague or contact the VDS. Getting it wrong is viewed as misconduct when the actions of the vet fall below the standards expected. Negligence is indicated when a reasonable body of peers would have done, or not done, something different. Dishonesty is when the actions fall far below the standards expected and the vet knows that what was done was wrong, and this is usually because the vet was trying to help somebody.

Difficulties with by-products

Scott Reaney (APHA) highlighted the current and past difficulties with animal by-products that are not intended for human consumption. These include waste from slaughterhouses, fallen stock, dead pets and international catering waste. Consumer confidence has been challenged by foot and mouth disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and dioxins related to food processing and agriculture. Technology drives animal by-products, e.g. energy costs, with the constitution of products always changing. By-products are classified according to risk with the lowest-risk used for medical devices (heart valves, etc.), hides and skins, fertilisers and pet food. Rendering, incineration and deep land fill are applied to the risk categories.

Animal by-products are traded as a commodity. There are 4,409 registered animal by-product premises and 1,806 approved premises. It is important to know where the risk material is located, with documents following the material through the production chain from point of origin to point of destination. Recognised risks are illegal diversion into the food chain with subsequent illness, illegal dumping with animal access, damage to the environment and contaminated waterways from spreading onto farmland. The export of hides to China is now a multi-million-pound industry with additional rules to treat pallets for woodboring beetles.

Ryan Waters (Pirbright) raised the question: how likely is another UK outbreak of foot and mouth disease? Improvements in rapid tests and a quick diagnosis are ongoing with an enzyme test under development, but the disease is global with spread between endemic countries. There are seven serotypes, with serotype 0 involved in the UK in 2001, defining antigenic production and vaccine development.

The UK is at risk from introduction of the virus with past experience indicating sources likely to be live animals, animal products, illegal imports and the release of pathogens. Worldwide, the aim is to eliminate FMD with the application of fast diagnosis and efficient vaccination.

Post-Brexit demands

The chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens, considered the demands of international trade post-Brexit and the likelihood of a large increase in the need for OV certification. Although the country is in a period of high uncertainty, there are strong opportunities for veterinary surgeons to support the trade deals that will be developed.

The food and agricultural sector is recognised as a significant exporter and contributor to the UK economy with added value products, not piled high and sold cheaply. The reputation is for quality and safety, with better animal welfare contributing to exports and the home market. The CVO emphasised that it is important for the whole sector to understand the value of reputation and the opportunity for a veterinary surgeon is to be the trusted adviser who understands exports. Products that could be unacceptable or fraudulent must not be certified for export.

The UK is seeking frictionless trade, with new arrangements made with other countries outside the EU.

Competition horses and racehorses now travel in this way between the UK, Ireland and France. Complex trading issues may result in bespoke solutions. However, veterinary surgeons must not assume that everything has been thought of and any concerns about specific aspects should be raised with APHA as soon as possible.

TB updates

Lots of information on bovine TB was presented. James McCormack (APHA) gave an update on the current badger control programme in England. The aim is for England to achieve TB Free status by 2038.

The data from the first culling in Somerset and Gloucester indicate that 3.5 badgers per square kilometre were culled in year one and one or fewer badgers in years two to six. Before starting the cull in Somerset, there were 106 herd breakdowns and 79 after three years. Comparative figures for Gloucester were 90 and 76. In Somerset, there was an increase in herd breakdowns on farms within a 2km buffer zone outside the culling area, possibly due to perturbation of badgers.

No data are available on the effectiveness of a badger vaccine in reducing bTB in cattle. Annual vaccination of badgers is required with a new supply due in 2018 for use in the Edge area. Since 2009, some £17 million has been spent on development of an oral badger vaccine, with variable results. It is estimated that it will be at least 2025 before an effective vaccine will be available.

The differentiation test (DEVO) to show natural infection of vaccinated cattle is not likely to be available for many years. Developments to date have yielded very variable results. PCR tests on badger faeces have demonstrated many false positives. An infected badger does not shed M. bovis every day, which is not helpful in applying a screening test for badger setts. Surveys have shown that farmers greatly underestimate the number of setts and the activity of badgers on their farms.

In answer to questions from the floor, the situation with TB was referred to as ‘a festering sore with some signs of improvement’. The clarity of forms is recognised as a concern, particularly for OVs encountering specific situations infrequently and reviews are in hand, but the appeal was for everyone to do their very best to get it right. With Nigel Gibbens planning to step down from the CVO role next February, it will be for someone else to complete the direction of travel and manage the changes Brexit will bring.

Richard Gard


Following a 16-year apprenticeship with Beecham, Richard established a project management and development consultancy and writes regular contributions for the veterinary press.

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