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Certification pitfalls in farm animal practice

It’s important to understand when a task is one of certification and to be aware of common mistakes to avoid

23 March 2020, at 9:00am

Certification is an important part of farm animal practice and a regular feature of the day job for most practitioners. International trade in animals and animal products is reliant on veterinary certification and whatever shape our relationship with the EU and the rest of the world takes over the next few years, we can be fairly certain there will be more, not less, veterinary certification.

Farm animal practitioners are familiar with the importance of veterinary certification and that they are required under the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct to certify facts and opinions honestly and with due care, in accordance with the Principles of Certification. This level of awareness is reflected in the relatively low levels (seven cases in the last five years) of farm-related civil claims for compensation handled by the VDS, when compared to the number of veterinary certificates issued every year.

It is always easier to take the care required when the task is obviously one of certification. If the document requiring veterinary input and a signature is clearly labelled (eg export health certificate), then practitioners are already alerted to the need to be on their guard. More problems arise for the unwary when the assignment is less recognisable as certification and the RCVS’s chapter 21 on certification in the supporting guidance to the Code of Professional Conduct is particularly helpful in this respect. While it may not be top of every busy practitioner’s reading list, if, like the author, readers struggle to keep the 10 (Yes, 10 now, not 12!) Principles of Certification at your fingertips, then the guidance is worth a regular dip into. Perhaps as important as the 10 Principles is the help on what constitutes a certificate and how to approach tasks which aren’t immediately apparent as certification.

A certificate is defined as “a written statement made with authority”; in this case the authority coming from the veterinary professional status (eg MRCVS, FRCVS or Official Veterinarian (OV)).

Some common examples of veterinary certificates in farm animal practice are:

  • Forms requiring a veterinary signature, such as for health scheme accreditation
  • Declarations such as fitness to travel
  • On-farm emergency slaughter
  • Insurance claims
  • Witness statements: these might be attesting to facts with the practitioner’s knowledge such as recording clinical findings (“witness of fact”), or giving opinion on a case or set of facts (“expert opinion”). More detailed guidance is given in chapter 22 of the RCVS supporting guidance
  • Self-certification documents, such as declaring compliance with CPD requirements at the annual RCVS renewal
  • OV certification
    • Export
    • TB testing. Remember that signing off the test is certifying it has been performed according to the correct protocol
    • Other statutory testing (eg anthrax, brucellosis, sheep scab)

Most problems arise through simple human fallibility such as transcription errors (dates, ear tag numbers, product codes etc) but mistakes with performing the wrong tests or reporting results inaccurately are also frequent causes of incorrect certification. Even simple errors are likely to result in stressful, time-consuming complaints as well as having the potential for some eye-wateringly large claims for compensation. While the hope of eliminating all human error might be a step too far, there is still much that can be done to mitigate the risks of claims and complaints by being well prepared and allowing time to give the necessary care and attention.

Export health certification requests in farm animal practice are often made at short notice but may be complex and require a significant amount of preparation. Exporters often exert considerable pressure on OVs to complete tasks quickly, or even cut corners, because of deadlines or financial pressures, but it is imperative to resist and instead, to allow the necessary time to prepare well in advance, as well as to double check each stage carefully as it is completed. Remember that the first request to export a particular type of animal or product will always take much longer than on repeat occasions when familiarity with the task will help. If there is not time to complete the certification properly, then do not be afraid to refuse or refer to someone else with the relevant experience.

It is equally important to ensure the correct facilities are made available to perform necessary checks, such as physically inspecting consignments. Some exporters will make arrangements purely for their own ease, or even deliberately difficult for the OV, so it is always worth thinking ahead. The corner of a dark field at 3am is not going to be a suitable place to inspect 500 sheep to ensure they are fit for export!

Beyond the difficulties of export health certification, farm practitioners frequently find themselves in the unenviable situation of making decisions on fitness to travel, eligibility for on-farm slaughter, or whether post-mortem findings fit the criteria of a client’s insurance policy; all of which have the potential to put the benevolent practitioner in direct conflict with their client’s financial interests.

Unfortunately, while simple errors can only lead, at worst, to a civil claim for compensation, a lack of care over certification, or worse still, false certification to assist a client, opens up the more worrying prospect of a conduct complaint to the RCVS.

Navigating the minefield of possible certification pitfalls is far from straightforward in farm animal practice but following a few basic principles will help to avoid major trouble.

  • Recognise a certificate and take the appropriate care
  • Don’t rush, even if you are put under pressure
  • If needed, step back and think
  • Check with the relevant authority (eg APHA for OV certification)
  • Ask a colleague (or the VDS)
  • Take the time required to be fully prepared
  • Ensure good communication. If you are unsure what is required, seek clarification and make certain you are properly understood
  • Follow the RCVS guidance and seek their clarification if required

Perhaps most importantly, if you are questioning what you are doing, there is a good chance you shouldn’t be doing it, so stop and take the time to find out.

Nick Perkins, BVSc, CertCHP, MRCVS, qualified in 1989 and spent 25 years in clinical practice in the South West before joining the Veterinary Defence Society as a Claims Consultant. Nick’s work involves both farm and companion animal claims.

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