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Working in Europe
  1. Graham Wood

Abstract

Graham Wood is a veterinary inspector with the European Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO), based in Grange, Ireland. Here, he explains how he moved into this role, and what the work involves

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I JOINED the FVO (part of the Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers, DG SANCO) on May 3, 1999. I had qualified from Edinburgh in 1985 and, before joining the FVO, had worked in mixed practice, research, as an OVS (official veterinary surgeon) and LVI (local veterinary inspector), and in industry clinical trials.

I left general practice 15 years ago. At the time (in the mid-1990s), there were some significant challenges – including a shortage of veterinary surgeons (I had to get RCVS support to obtain a work permit for a New Zealand assistant), and increasing pressures for flexible working arrangements and more reasonable out-of-hours rotas.

My recollection is that, at that time, practice standards were really starting to improve, and there were great opportunities for colleagues to specialise, access good CPD material and maintain an ongoing interest in a veterinary career. During my clinical trial work, I visited some fantastic purpose-built, well-equipped hospitals. This was such a step forward from converted rooms in a house, which was the norm when I qualified.

Moving into government work

Following completion of the red meat hygiene course in Bristol in the autumn of 1992, my name was added to the list of veterinary surgeons eligible for designation by regions as Official Veterinary Surgeon (Red Meat) on application from local authorities – so began my OVS work. Shortly after, I was appointed as a MAFF LVI to facilitate certain types of certification and to deal with live animal exports. I made this move as, having recently bought a veterinary practice, I was keen to broaden our range of activities and secure a regular (additional) source of income. I also had an interest in pig practice and already had regular contact with the slaughter/meat industry (health checks, growth performance, and so on).

Joining the EC

I had been introduced to the European Commission through my work with the pig industry (in relation to animal transport) and preparing for inspection visits while working as an OVS. I became aware of the unique mix of work undertaken by what was then a rather small group of inspectors. I visited three of these inspectors in Brussels, and was informed politely that it would be very hard to get into OVPIC (the forerunner to the FVO), particularly as a private vet. I went straight down to the Commission's personnel offices and requested details of how I might get a job as an inspector with the Commission. They took my details and, in due course, notification arrived of an entry competition (‘concours’). I took the exams in London, was added to the list of successful candidates and was duly recruited into Unit F2 (food of animal origin – mammals) at the FVO.

When I was recruited, the Commission's exams included a test in a second community language (other than your mother tongue). However, it is now a requirement to have a third Community language at a reasonable level before first promotion. But, of course, working in a job that involves travelling to many different countries, the more languages you speak, the merrier. I speak French and Italian, and am working on Spanish now. A number of my work colleagues speak four, five, six or more languages.

The Commission helps with CPD and indeed expects staff to identify training needs. This is formalised in a ‘training map’ that is prepared for agreement with your line manager each year. A wide variety of training is available, and if subjects cannot be taught in-house, an application can be made to attend external courses. For example, I have participated in training in fish health in Stirling and was selected for a two-month exchange of officials with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

Working for the Commission

The Commission as an institution is rather daunting for the outsider or the newcomer. From the outset, I was aware that I would be joining an administrative body of about 25,000 European civil servants, dispersed between many Directorates General.

From 1999 to 2007 I worked in two inspection units (F2 and F3). The overall purpose of my work was to evaluate the performance of national authorities in delivering compliance with food safety and veterinary controls in respect of the production sectors for mammals, birds, fish and shellfish.

In my current role as desk officer in F1 (which deals with certain member states and candidate/potential candidate countries), one of my main tasks is to look at the follow-up by these countries in all the sectors covered by the FVO (that is, food and feed law, animal health and welfare, and plant health). This brings additional tasks such as preparing briefings for Commissioners/senior Commission staff and providing input at high-level meetings. To date I have participated in or led over 75 missions throughout the world (from Albania to Zimbabwe). I have always enjoyed travelling, and would regard it as something of an addiction.

I remain fascinated by the range of work carried out by the Commission, and how well (in general) it all functions, despite the varying interests of 27 member states covering a large geographical area, further complicated by 23 official languages. I still find the institution somewhat daunting (perhaps because I have been based primarily in rural County Meath); however, I now have a much better idea of how it works and I can find my way around when required. It is never dull.

Changes in veterinary controls

From a Commission perspective, Regulation 882/2004 on the Official Food and Feed Controls resulted in some major changes to veterinary controls. This regulation now lays down a number of operational criteria that the competent authorities must meet to guarantee their efficiency, effectiveness and impartiality. For example, there must be adequate resources, coordination, contingency planning, and so on, in order to ensure the effective implementation of food law.

Furthermore, to facilitate Community controls in the area, the member states must have a single integrated multi-annual control plan in place, on which they report on an annual basis.

As an auditor, one of the more interesting provisions of this regulation is the requirement for each member state to put in place internal or external audits that are subject to independent scrutiny. In an ideal world, this would lead to a self-correcting system.

From my own experience, I have noted that, to optimise veterinary controls, better coordination is starting to take place between authorities with responsibility for different parts of the food chain.

We have just come through an intensive period with regard to the adoption of legislation (Food Law Regulation 178/2002, Hygiene Package, and Regulation 882/2004) and the emphasis now is very much on enforcement and ensuring that the legislation already on the books is applied. It takes considerable time to roll out such substantial legislation, so provisions or the effects of provisions are only beginning to be seen.

Highs and lows

For me, the best part of the job is the privilege of working with colleagues from throughout Europe, and, when on mission, the possibility of being accompanied by ‘national experts’ – typically leading figures in their area of expertise working in the member states. I have also found it fascinating to gain a unique insight into the aspirations of governments and their competent authorities and how this relates to what we see ‘on the spot’. No matter where you go in the world (whether Europe or further afield), you find like-minded individuals who are industrious and passionate about the work they do – often under difficult circumstances. I have seen extraordinary achievements in countries dealing with disease control despite limited resources, but with a profound veterinary knowledge and a genuine will to get the job done.

This picture was taken in Guatemala, where Graham was on a EU FVO mission for fishery products. On two-week visits, mission members get a little time to themselves at the weekend – hence the relaxed demeanour. (right) A European meeting in session

One of the more difficult parts of the job would be preparing for a (sensitive) final meeting at 04.00 hours, in a poorly lit hotel room! It is typical to have a lot of material to review with colleagues on the final day of a mission. I once had to do this in an airport departure lounge due to a baggage handlers' strike.

When I first joined the Commission, I was posted to Brussels as the FVO offices had not been fully established in Ireland. For me, the positive side of being in Brussels was the opportunity to live in a capital with so much going on (in addition to being the seat of the EU, NATO headquarters, and so on). And it was great to be at the heart of western Europe within easy reach by car/train/plane of the rest of continental Europe. My family has a home in Italy, which I could reach by car in a day. The negative side was the rather grey weather!

With regard to the FVO in Ireland, it moved from Dublin and is now in its permanent home in County Meath. For me, this presents the unique opportunity of working in an ‘international body’ yet being located in the heart of the countryside. Although it does not suit everybody, this means that you can go horse-riding in the morning, travel on leafy uncrowded back roads and still arrive for work in good time!

For the sake of my colleagues from further away, I would say that the office will always have the disadvantage that it is one or two flights away from most people's home country.

Professional satisfaction

The day-to-day practice of veterinary medicine brought me considerable job satisfaction. Each day brought new challenges and problems to solve. There is no doubt that I also appreciated the respect accorded by clients, my status within the community and, as a practice owner, the control I had over my affairs. But there is undoubtedly considerable professional satisfaction from working at European level!

n For more information on the FVO, see http://ec.europa.eu/food/fvo/resources/consumervoice_en.pdf

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