Fresh Produce Consortium chief executive Nigel Jenney explains that new import costs cannot be absorbed by industry 

Nigel Jenney

Nigel Jenney

Border checks on plant and animal products arriving from the EU have come into force this week, but what will it mean for importers? What will it mean for retailers? And what will it mean for consumers?

From Wednesday, a variety of fresh goods have become subject to different rules. Items classified by the government as medium or high risk will be subject to these new rules. They include cut flowers and plants. They’ll have to have a health certificate to accompany them.

Beginning in April, the UK’s new border operating procedures will significantly alter the landscape for importing goods. Under these revised regulations, physical inspections at borders will become a standard practice, affecting a wide range of commodities. This change is particularly impactful for lorries transporting mixed consignments from various sources to multiple UK customers.

Key role of CUC

The introduction of the Common User Charge (CUC) will play a pivotal role in this new framework. Each unit of different species of flowers, for instance, will incur a CUC, leading to a considerable escalation in costs. This charge is not just a nominal fee; it represents a substantial financial burden, especially for mixed assignments. The CUC’s far-reaching effects will be felt across the board, marking a significant shift in the UK’s approach to handling imports post-Brexit.

And come October, some items that are currently categorised as low risk, may be moved to the category of medium to high risk. These include fruits and vegetables, of which a combined 35 per cent are imported to the UK from the EU.

The Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) has estimated that this is move would add around £200 million of extra costs, which equates to a £3m value of fruit and veg.

In stark contrast, the government claims that the cost passed on to consumers will be negligible. They say it will be less than one per cent. But there’s a real fear that these checks and delays will inevitably cost the industry dearly.

FPC is seeking urgent clarity, however the October date has now been removed from Defra’s website, which simply causes further confusion.

The cost implication is basically a combination of different fees that the industry will have to pay to the UK government to manage the import process and subsequent inspections.

A tax in all but name

There’s a much more effective way of actually managing the controls, which are absolutely appropriate, and that allow controls at the point of destination. These have already been approved by the UK government.

The £200m that I’m talking about is, in essence, a tax by the UK government to manage this process - no more no less. Ultimately, the industry cannot absorb these costs and unfortunately unless the government changes its mindset, these costs will occur from later this year.

Contrasting industry views

Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the NFU, explained how he believes these bio-checks are necessary, stating: “British farmers and growers are very proud of the standards we produce to and maintaining our biosecurity at the borders is absolutely essential. We need to stop the risk of any plant and animal diseases coming in.”

At the retailer end of the spectrum, Iceland chief Richard Walker remarked: “The can has been kicked down the road for a very long time… but the reality is if you ask me exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to go, I don’t know. We’ll have to suck it and see, and we’ll see what the consequences are but you know it is more friction and it feels that it has been bungled by the government.

“I think the Conservatives have failed the nation,” Walker continued. “They’ve drifted badly out of touch with people like my customers.

“The country is in a mess. It’s in a significantly worse place than it was 14 years ago and I’m, an optimist,” Walker added. “But we need to get our sense of national pride back. We need to get growth back.”