Defra reclassifies large number of EU fruit and veg as medium-risk, dealing ”severe blow” to UK fresh produce industry

A “substantial range” of imported European fresh fruit and vegetables could be subject to UK border inspections from the autumn of this year, the FPJ has learned.

UK border

The UK government has today (24 January) changed its position and reclassified the risk profile of a large number of EU fresh produce imports from low to medium.

This means certain products will need to be physically checked on arrival at UK border control posts, Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) told FPJ.

Although inspections will not occur until 31 October 2024, this verdict delivers a severe blow to the UK fresh produce industry and will have widespread ramifications, he said.

“This morning the government updated its Plant Health Portal website confirming that a large number of EU fruit and veg commodities are now considered to be medium risk,” Jenney said. “Despite the lack of an official public statement, FPC believes the implications of this decision are profound.”

The better-known fruits and vegetables that will be subject to checks include: celery, papaya, quinces, strawberries, apples, cassava, basil, avocados, plums, pears, currants, beetroot, radishes, swedes, carrots, ginger, sweet potatoes, yams, blackberries, nightshade vegetables, blueberries, grapes, and sweetcorn.

Other fruits and vegetables from the EU are categorised low risk, but Defra said further risk assessments are ongoing and any changes to the risk categories will not take place before April 2024.

The government based today’s decision on phytosanitary risk assessments it has been carrying out on EU fresh produce, but the rationale behind the product reclassification remains undisclosed, Jenney said.

“We have not seen these risk assessments and, as yet, they have not been shared,” Jenney told the FPJ. “Obviously, we want to understand what the concerns are, so that hopefully the industry can address them and adjust the risk category,” he said.

With 65 per cent of all EU fresh produce imports relying on groupage, the repercussions of the government U-turn will be far-reaching, he added, since vehicles carrying consignments not requiring inspection may still face prolonged delays at border control posts.

“This level of produce from Europe being medium-risk puts a very different dynamic on groupage, the impact of groupage, the cost of delays, and will substantially increase number of inspections that will happen from 31 October. That will cause substantial additional costs and delays of service for UK wholesalers and retailers.”

Jenney said the FPC raised its concerns with Defra within minutes of noticing the website update on Wednesday morning.

“If they’ve conducted those risk assessments but won’t share them so we can understand what those pest and disease risks are, it is very difficult,” he told FPJ. “But what we will do is remind government that, if this is their decision, they will be directly responsible for causing huge costs and delays in the supply chain that will increase costs of fruit and veg to UK consumers, and will not encourage the UK to be the first destination of choice for European suppliers.

“From a fruit and vegetable point of view, nothing will change from the current position for several months. However, the change when it happens as currently advised will be material with material impacts beyond the industry and consumers. So, I do hope the goverment will rethink,” Jenney said.

The FPC CEO added that industry advocates for the simultaneous implementation, on the “go live” date, of industry-managed control points with approval for official inspections.

“We do not want to compromise UK biosecurity and UK production, however there are far more effective ways of carrying out inspections than the hugely expensive border-control posts that the government has built. And at the same time, what we would want if this were to happen, we would want commercial control points to be approved to conduct inspections on behalf of the industry, which is what we have been offering and proposing to the government for over four years now.”

It is now even more important that key points of destination, like industry clearance stations and others, use their control point facilities and that they are approved to be able to conduct official inspections on behalf of the government, Jenney added. “That will have to be simultaneous with any change in inspection regime. Because going through a border control post like Sevington is simply not viable for a just-in-time, highly perishable industry.”

The government’s proposed Border Control Post Common User Charge, levied on medium and high-risk EU produce imports coming into any UK port of entry, represents another potentially fatal blow to the sector, Jenney added.

“The proposal is that government will charge for every individual consignment coming into the UK – and the definition of consignment is a material concern because it could be every individual product rather than the group of products that are subject to these fees,” he said.

“So, if your goods travel through the Port of Dover or through the Tunnel, for example, the government will levy this Common User Charge to support the cost of operating Sevington.

“For a mixed consignment, or mixed load on a vehicle, if that is range of plants for example, or cut-flowers and fruit and veg, that could possibly cost £2,000 per vehicle, based on our calculations. Which simply makes the trade unviable for the majority of smaller businesses within our sector.”

Simplifying and reducing the complexity and cost of trade with the UK is crucial to prevent food inflation and potentially empty shelves, Jenney added.

Commenting on the U-turn, a government spokesperson told FPJ: “We are committed to delivering the most advanced border in the world. The Border Target Operating Model is key to delivering this, protecting the UK’s biosecurity.

“We have introduced these import controls to support businesses and ensure the efficient trade of fruit and vegetables is maintained between the EU and Great Britain. We are taking a phased approach – including temporarily moving all medium risk goods from EU, such as fruit and vegetables, to low risk to ensure business do not face any unnecessary burdens. We will continue to work closely with businesses across the UK as the controls are implemented.”