North may be unable to process all health certs for agri-food exports in no-deal Brexit

Chief veterinary officer has warned that resources are finite and demand for export certs may exceed supply

Northern Ireland is unlikely to be able to process all the export health certificates (EHCs) required for agri-food exports in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the North’s chief veterinary officer has warned.

According to figures released on Thursday by the North’s department of agriculture, environment and rural affairs, the number of certificates required per year could rise from 18,000 to 1.9 million or more.

"The resources and solutions available to us are finite," said Dr Robert Huey, "and the demand for EHCs may well exceed the supply in a no-deal scenario."

An EHC is an official document signed by a vet or other qualified person to verify a food or animal export meets the health and safety requirements of the importing country. Such a certificate would be required for each food or animal export to the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit.


Any inability to process such certificates would lead to delays, increased costs, a reduction in cross-Border trade and job losses in the agri-food sector.

“There would be an immediate, severe, negative impact on exports to the Republic of Ireland and the EU,” said Séamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association. There simply isn’t the personnel to do this, and if trade suddenly stops there is a knock-on effect and job losses not just in agri-food, but among processors, the manufacturing industry, logistics, the service sector. Every single sector will take a hit.”

The department of agriculture, environment and rural affairs aims to be able to provide 400,000 certificates per year for meat and dairy exports, and said it was working with the private veterinary sector to help it meet the remaining demand.

According to the department, the rise is due to the emergence of a new sector requiring EHCs, food retail and distribution, which will account for approximately 75 per cent of this certification requirement.

It said the actual demand “will depend on the ability of businesses to maintain existing patterns of trade given the broad range of third-country requirements they will need to meet if they wish to continue to trade with the EU”.


Dr Huey said “while trading patterns and practices will adjust and the need for all 1.9 million certificates is unlikely to fully materialise, we have planned for the reasonable worst-case scenario in a no-deal scenario. We have scaled up as much as possible but, still, demand may exceed capacity.”

In order to cope with the demand, the department said it had reprioritised the work of up to 100 vets, trained around 300 existing staff to operate as trade certification support officers, and has recruited 100 additional administrative staff.

It has also provided additional training to enable local councils to increase their capacity to provide EHCs for fish and eggs, and allocated £2 million to support this.

“This is an unprecedented time for Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector and a time of great uncertainty,” Dr Huey said. “We have explored, and will continue to explore, every possible avenue to scale up our capacity and that of the private sector, but the resources and solutions available to us are finite and the demand for EHCs may well exceed the supply in a no-deal scenario.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times