The Insider’s Guide to Trade in Food, Animal and Plant Products

January 11, 2022
The Insider’s Guide to Trade in Food, Animal and Plant Products

By John Bourne, clearBorder SPS Adviser

For just over a year now, if you wanted to export Products of Animal Origin (POAO) to the EU, you have had to comply with the EU’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) regime for imports from ‘third countries’.

The SPS regime means some products face multiple layers of border checks:

1. Customs checks (everything)
2. SPS checks (food, animals, plants – covered here)
3. Market checks (quality and labelling checks on a variety of products)

Here, we’ll give you the insider’s guide to SPS requirements.

The SPS regime covers more than just what officials call “POAO” – all animal and animal-derived products from soup stock to leather. It covers other categories of plant and animal products too:

  • Animal By-products (ABP)
  • High Risk Food not of Animal Origin (HRNFAO)
  • Germinal products (semen, embryos, etc)
  • Live animals
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Plants and Plant products

Some products may also need to meet strict marketing rules, for example: wine, hops, organic produce, poultry, beef, eggs. In some cases rules for the protection of endangered species (known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES) also apply.

SPS Regime

For many businesses SPS requirements are the biggest change since the UK left the EU. They are also the least understood.

And what no one really says is that much of the traditional ‘border’ industry – freight forwarders, hauliers and customs agents – don’t really understand them either.

Anyone importing or exporting to the EU in 2021 will tell you that success requires careful attention to all the relevant border requirements: one element missed can cause delay, cost, lost product and – worse – lost customers.

What’s it for?

The EU’s sanitary regime exists to protect animal and public health. The phytosanitary regime exists to protect plant health.

Together they make up the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) regime. The regime, built up over decades, is detailed, risk averse, complex and comprehensive. It may sometimes feel like overkill; in some cases it is – and it hides a fair amount of economic protectionism.

But it is the regime and exporters have to comply with it. To be successful, an exporter needs to understand the process.

But – biggest secret of all – you don’t need to become an expert.


The first secret to a successful export:

  • make good use of those who are experts and to recognise that you need the SPS regime and tariff regime to work in harmony – they are interlinked.

To address this some companies offer integrated freight forwarding, customs agents and finance agents who not only manage the transport and tariffs for the exporter but also pay the relevant import taxes on your behalf.

These businesses will also check that the SPS documents match the customs and excise documents – a commodity code that is different on the SPS documentation and the customs paperwork will lead to failure. So will using an Export Health Certificate model that is not appropriate for that commodity code.

From a commercial point of view an integrated service may be more expensive but it reduces the risk of interface errors. These operators can often offer their clients Delivered at Place (DAP) terms.

This means you don’t need a legal entity in the EU and your customers experience trade as they did before the UK left the single market.

Secret number two:

  • think ahead.

Talk to experts about what you are planning to export and to whom and by what route. You’ll need to

  • Engage an Official Veterinarian for POAO, ABP, live animals, germinal products, or
  • Talk to the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate (PHSI) for plants, or
  • Ask your Local Authority about HRFNAO
  • Talk to you customs agent or freight forwarder and haulier

They should give you up to date advice on what to do next and how to do it.

Secret number three:

  • Do not rush.

There are myriad different ways in which an Export Health Certificate can be wrong. Time spent preparing, completing and reviewing documents is time well spent. It will get easier.

Secret number four:

  • Do a test run

Think about sending a smallish consignment the first time as a test, particularly if the goods are perishable: it may be expensive and uneconomic, but if a full load goes wrong the cost will be far more. Next time you’ll have confidence for a larger load.

If your goods are non-perishable and only a pallet or two, talk to your OV (or Local Authority/PHSI) and hauliers about groupage: you may be more vulnerable to delay at the Border Control Post but if delay is not critical that may save considerable money.

It will seem daunting the first time, but stick with it: it will get easier and quicker each time.


Most importers have not had to worry about the UK’s SPS regime for imports from the EU. That’s because the UK authorities – the Scottish, Welsh and UK government and Northern Ireland Executive – delayed the introduction of a new regime. (Remember, SPS rules are devolved to the four UK nations).

Only high priority plants, live animals, and products subject to safeguard clauses have required paperwork and checks.

From 1 January 2022, all regulated plants and plant products, and all POAO, ABP and HRFNAO going to or from the EU have required a Common Health Entry Document (CHED) and pre-notification using Defra’s IPAFFS system. (Trade with Ireland (Northern Ireland or the Republic) is an exception, so check what’s required with clearBorder or your agent).

Things get tighter on 1 July 2022. Then, new Border Control Posts will open and everything subject to the SPS regime will require

  • pre-notification and certification (EHC or phytosanitary)
  • A proportion of consignments to stop at the BCP for inspections.

The exception will be less risky plants and plant products that will require a phytosanitary certificate but no pre-notification other than by exception.

So, if you are an importer, now is the time to understand the requirements for your products.

Now is the time to start talking to your agents and exporting partners to make sure they are ready.

While the UK is likely to take a relatively lenient view of errors in the early days it’s worth getting it right from the very beginning.

Because it can be done. Secret number five:

  • Knowledge is power.

Teach yourself and train your staff in the basics to reduce the chance of minor mistakes causing major disruption. That will give you the confidence to help your customers, handle suppliers, deal with officials and grow your international business.

Quality, consistent processes will produce quality, consistent paperwork enabling you to deliver a quality, consistent service to your customers.

To find some tools to help you, have a look at clearBorder’s Border Ready Food and Animal Product courses.