Day in the life – the global health role played by product export vets

Written by: Elizabeth Robinson
Published on: 11 May 2022

Elizabeth Robinson You may have heard of us already, possibly referred to as the “doughnut vets”. Or maybe you’ve recently read the article in the Financial Times about the pressure that the food export industry is under to find vets to certify its products. 

You may have not heard of us at all and can’t believe that there are vets who inspect food instead of treating animals. If you fall into the latter camp (and that was me 12 months ago), keep reading, and, hopefully, I can enlighten you.

What exactly is a product export vet?

We product export vets are a small army of OVs who hold the Official Control Qualification (Veterinary) – Export Products credential, and can certify exports of products of animal origin (POAOs).

These include – but are very much not limited to – meat, fish, dairy products and pet foods. I am employed by Amivet Exports, but work directly with exporters, from multinational supermarket chains to small independent cheesemakers, to certify products for export around the world.

Product export vets issue export health certificates (EHCs), which accompany the products being exported and are inspected at border control posts (BCPs). Until Brexit, in January 2021, POAOs could pass freely from the UK into other EU countries without physical or documentary inspections. Now, these products require an EHC and will often undergo physical veterinary inspections at the BCPs to enter the EU. 

The EU EHCs are usually in two languages and can be up to 17 pages long. Products being exported to non-EU countries also require EHCs, but these vary depending on the destination country. 

In 2021, 288,558 EHCs were issued – up from 22,990 in 2020. This shows the impact Brexit has had on the demand for vets to certify POAOs, and this demand is continuing to increase, placing vets in a vital position in the world of product exports. 

It’s natural to question why vets have been put in this position – especially given the current shortages in our profession – and it’s a question I’m regularly asked. 

However, when you consider that we are in a unique position of understanding animal health and its impact on food safety, and, therefore, public and animal health – all while being held accountable as members of our globally recognised RCVS – it makes sense that we are trusted internationally to safeguard animal and human health in the food chain. 

Day in the life

A typical day for a product export vet might look something like this: today, I’ve booked a site visit to a pet food manufacturer exporting just more than 20 tonnes of pet food to Denmark. 

I regularly issue EHCs for this client, and it’s always lovely to see her, her team and their office dogs (mandatory for a pet food company). 

The pet food EU EHC is complex, but one that I am familiar with. I am required to sign health attestations about the dry food, including statements regarding processing, microbiological data, and the origins of the POAO components. So that I can do this, the export manager provides me with signed manufacturer declarations, traceability information, and microbiological test results. 

We also often inspect the production lines (I like to pretend that I’m Gregg Wallace on Inside the Factory) to enable us to certify the processing statements. Onsite, I check through the documents and then head to the warehouse to inspect the pallets. I check the product details and batch codes match the information on the certificate, and I also check the bags are intact and stored so they won’t be contaminated. 

Essentially, I am checking what the border OVs will be inspecting to ensure there are no reasons to refuse entry. Delays at the border due to incorrect documents are expensive and frustrating for everyone involved, and it’s so important we do everything in our power to avoid them.

With documents and products successfully checked and approved, I’m sat down with a cup of coffee and my EHC to complete. Once it’s nearly ready, I head outside into the sunshine to watch the pallets being loaded on to the lorry. 

The driver applies a seal to the lorry doors: this is a piece of plastic or metal which breaks if the doors are opened and, if intact, means the products haven’t been tampered with. The individual seal number is recorded on the EHC and its presence means the BCP OVs may allow the lorry through without needing to unload the pallets for a physical inspection. 

Once the products are loaded and the lorry is sealed, I finalise and hand over the EHC, and my job here is done. I say my goodbyes and head back home in time to take my little dog, Otto, off for a lunchtime walk. I grab a sandwich and sit down at my desk with another coffee to check through my emails. 

My next job is to prepare for my inspection tomorrow. This inspection is for some ship stores that are being flown over to a superyacht in Antigua – mostly artisanal cheeses, but also a selection of other POAOs. 

For this EHC, the level of evidence required to certify the products is lower than for EU exports, so I can certify that the products comply with their animal and human health regulations using the health mark on the packaging, and a notifiable disease clearance certificate from the APHA. I quickly use Google to look up the superyacht (vital professional research, of course) before preparing the EHC and finalising tomorrow’s schedule with the exporter. 

I have another check through my emails and have a few queries to answer from some of my clients. I mostly answer these myself, normally through my own knowledge and experience, but also by reading the relevant EU regulations or the notes for guidance (a document produced by the APHA to help us complete the EHCs). If I’m ever stuck, my fellow OVs and regional managers are incredibly knowledgeable, and always happy to help.

Once I’ve cleared my inbox and completed my time sheet for the day, I head off and enjoy my evening. After giving up horses for nearly 10 years to focus on university and my career, I now part-loan a lovely mare called Autumn, and usually spend time with her at the yard, or sometimes head off to midweek theatre with my boyfriend.

Pros and cons

As with any job, especially in the veterinary world, there is a lot of pressure to get everything right all the time. The border inspections are usually rigorous, and any mistakes will be detected. 

Errors often hold the products at the border while a replacement EHC is issued (called a “cancel and replace”) or, at worst, the products can be sent back across the border or even destroyed. Errors also damage the relationships we have with our clients and are usually expensive to correct, meaning it can be nerve-racking when you hand over your completed EHC(s) to the exporter, especially when you are less experienced. 

During my first few months at Amivet, I went on lots of “shadowing” visits with my super regional manager, Pippa, and other OVs until I was confident enough to fly solo. This really helped build my knowledge and confidence, and meant I never felt that I was out of my depth.

I’ve loved learning about the food industry and supply chains, and I’ve found it fascinating how the skills I gained as a small animal vet have translated into the world of exports: in the process of exporting a food product, an OV needs to be able to source and assimilate information quickly and efficiently (like taking a history and performing a clinical exam), process this information, come up with a plan of action, and explain it all back to the client. Somewhat surprisingly to me, issuing the EHCs takes up a tiny proportion of our time. 

I am problem-solving and communicating every day with clients who are usually as passionate about their products as they would be about their pets or livestock. I was recently watching some ice lollies being loaded on to a lorry to go to Ireland when the exporter excitedly realised I hadn’t tried their new flavour. It was a beautiful, chilly winter sunrise, but he insisted I ate it there and then anyway; it was banana-flavoured and absolutely delicious. 

It was a leap of faith leaving small animal practice to enter the world of product exports. The learning curve was steep, but I find my work varied, interesting and refreshing, and I’ve found that the workload is enough for my days to be mentally stimulating without being unnecessarily stressful.

I am treated well by my clients, and supported by my colleagues and managers. While it can now be a challenge to explain my job at parties, I’m glad I took the leap.

  • This article first appeared in Vet Times Volume 52, Issue 17, Pages 13-14.