U.K. trade: Key dates, including Brexit, looming to maintain frictionless produce imports

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U.K. trade: Key dates, including Brexit, looming to maintain frictionless produce imports

From the pages of Produce Business UK

Earlier this month, the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) hosted a seminar on trading with the U.K. during The London Produce Show and Conference 2019. Representatives from Defra and the Food Standards Agency provided a comprehensive overview of new regulatory requirements, while Freshfel Europe focused on the potential trading panorama post-Brexit. Gert Mulder, chief executive of GroentenFruit Huis (the produce growers' association of the Netherlands) also discussed maintaining the Dutch-U.K. relationship. 

Regardless of the Brexit outcome, two other key dates that will affect imports into the U.K. On 1 September, new legislation will regulate new pests and introduce new import requirements for a limited number of products. And on 14 December, a new European Union (EU) plant health regulation will take effect and change things “substantially”.

Nigel Jenney, chief executive of FPC, pressed the need to understand these changes to avoid making “silly mistakes.”

“Whether the U.K. is within the EU or not, there are certain aspects of legislation in the short term to which you do need to adhere,” he stated. “This is about ensuring that you’re offering food safe products to the U.K. There still is the ongoing challenge as an industry of how we present and manage our sustainability, and how we trade responsibly.”

Additionally, attendees were reminded of the new Brexit deadline of 31 October, at which point an agreement must be made, or the U.K. must apply for a further extension. Jenney said the produce trade continues to “prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” indicating that in the U.K. fruit prices could rise by 3% and vegetable prices by 4% under a no-deal scenario, the potential for which remains strong, he added.

“There is a lot of political uncertainty, and as an industry we have to work together to influence the relative politicians wherever we are in the world to maintain that trade,” Jenney urged. “I hope we don’t go for a no-deal situation but we have prepared for it, and I think we have some pragmatic solutions that are risk-based.”

Jenney explained that in a no-deal situation, a limited number of continuity arrangements have been agreed between the U.K. and certain countries, leaving considerably more agreements still to be made, however. Outside of that, the U.K. would introduce temporary customs tariffs, with a 12-month zero duty rate for goods, except for bananas and green beans currently.

“I’d encourage your countries to make sure those independent agreements are made before we get to that situation,” Jenney advised.

At the same time, Jenney said the U.K. remains a “fantastic” market with which to trade, encouraging those not currently in the top 10 list of suppliers to the U.K. to consider the untapped opportunities.

“The U.K. wants to remain a global destination of choice […] Brexit will not change that significant volume of food that the U.K. imports,” he asserted, referring to the two thirds of produce (or 6 million (m) tonnes) imported by the U.K. annually, of which 3.3m tonnes arrives from Europe.

Jenney also reminded traders not to overlook the U.K.’s wholesale and foodservice sectors, which he said are growing by 35-40%. “This market has a much broader range of customers with different specifications ... it may be an easier way to trade with the U.K. than targeting a retailer.”

As for U.K. demand, Jenney pointed out that although British provenance is highly important to shoppers, price and quality are the key drivers to consumer buying decisions.

Complying with plant health regulations

Richard McIntosh, Assistant Chief Plant Health Officer at the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), discussed in detail two new import regulations that will remain applicable until the U.K.’s official departure from the EU.

“A major piece of new legislation [Directive 2019/523] is coming into force on 1 September, which will affect imports,” he explained. “It will regulate new pests, introduce new import requirements for certain pests and make changes to the EU’s protected zone system. It also regulates new species of fruit for import purposes and extends the geographic scope of fruits which are already regulated.”

Looking further ahead, McIntosh said there will be continuous horizon scanning for new and potential threats, including the tomato brown rugose fruit virus, the fall army worm, and Xylella fastidiosa, which are being considered for possible legislation.

More fundamentally, McIntosh talked about the effects of the new EU plant health regulation (PHR) coming into force on 14 December, alongside the EU’s official control regulations (OCR).

“This is focused on improved import biosecurity, and an increased risk-based approach,” he explained. “One of the aims is to speed up decision-making, and to make sure there’s more clarity of approach between EU members and plant health services.”

On 14 December, the main change will be an extension “pretty much across the board” of the requirement for a phytosanitary certificate, compared with a limited number of plant products currently.

“There will be a small number of exceptions, but most plant products will require a phytosanitary certificate in the future,” McIntosh pointed out. “Also, there are a number of trades that have been identified as being particularly risky, which will be suspended unless the risk assessment is provided to demonstrate that those trades can be imported safely.”

In particular, McIntosh cautioned that there is “quite an extensive list” of high-risk plants that are heading for import suspension following very few applications submitted to date. “If you have an interest in these trades and want them to continue from December, please liaise with your national plant protection organization in your country of origin, and make sure they get their application in,” he urged.

Importing after Brexit

With regards to Brexit, these two new EU requirements will continue to apply until the U.K. leaves the EU.

“It’s still the intention of the government to agree a deal with the EU, and to enter into an implementation period,” McIntosh noted. “If that’s the case, there would be an obligation for the U.K. to apply for the EU Plant Health Regulation from December.”

In the event of no deal, McIntosh said separate U.K. legislation will apply, details of which are available online here.

In short, McIntosh stated there would be no immediate change from Day 1 in terms of materials arriving from third countries. “The plants and products that are currently regulated will remain regulated in future,” he indicated.

For plant and plant products that are unregulated in the EU, again he said there will be no immediate change on Day 1, meaning no additional paperwork nor processes.

“In both cases, we would keep the biosecurity risk associated with those trades and review to determine if any changes to the legislation are needed in future,” he added.

In a no-deal arrangement, those products that are regulated in the EU at the moment – in other words those plants and products covered by the EU plant passport system – would require a phytosanitary certificate to be imported from the EU, including: certain plant and tree species, citrus fruit (with leaves/peduncles), seed potatoes and specific seeds, bulbs and wood.

“These imports would need to be pre-notified, and the plant health authorities would carry out a remote documentary and ID check,” McIntosh explained. “There would be no systematic, physical check at the border; we won’t be stopping goods at the border but there maybe be routine surveillance.”

McIntosh also recommended checking Defra’s Plant Health Portal, including the UK Plant Health Risk Register as useful points of reference and advice.

Future trading with the U.K.

Philippe Binard, General Delegate of Freshfel Europe, spoke of the shifting and uncertain environment for the global produce trade, considering the undecided future of the WTO, in addition to new (often unilateral) U.S. trade policies, the Chinese economy, and the Russian embargo. Despite this, Binard said the EU still believes in bilateral trade agreements.

Natalia Santos-Garcia Bernabe, Policy Advisor Trade and Food Safety at Freshfel,  assessed Brexit, emphasizing the "very tight schedule” to meet the next deadline of 31 October 2019, given the tiredness among politicians and the focus on internal EU procedures following recent elections.

“We don’t see much eagerness to renegotiate,” she stated. “[Michel] Barnier always left the door open. His preferred option was a customs agreement but, unfortunately, from what we’re hearing from other leaders it’s a very closed dossier and the best agreement. I think we could be heading to another extension.”

This, she said, leaves two possibilities; either the withdrawal agreement is passed, or there is a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

If the withdrawal agreement passes, a status quo situation or ‘implementation period’ would ensue until 31 December 2020. After that, the U.K. could request another two-year extension, meaning the situation could only change on 1 January 2022.

If by then there is no new, long-term agreement or deal, the so-called ‘backstop’ would be triggered to protect the Republic of Ireland. That would result in a common customs territory for the EU and the U.K., while Northern Ireland would stay within the single market. This would mean the need for at least regulatory checks between the U.K. and the rest of the single market, including potentially Northern Ireland.

Of course, politically that is very complicated, stressed Santos-Garcia Bernabe.

Alternatively, she said a no-deal Brexit would have “quite a wide and significant impact” on stakeholders in the U.K., the EU and abroad, especially in the EU where the supply chain is very fragmented, and many SMEs are not accustomed to trading outside of the single market.

To help stakeholders prepare, the European Commission has published a booklet called ‘Customs Guide for Businesses,’ that can be downloaded here.

Although the future remains difficult to predict, Santos-Garcia Bernabe suggested that regardless of the U.K. and the EU’s different political approaches, the agreed declaration on future relations leaves a choice between two institutional models, as well as room for creativity.

These models entail completely different forms of relationships, and comprise either a market integration format, like EFTA, which Santos-Garcia Bernabe described as a “softer Brexit”; or a trade liberalization scenario, which would be a WTO-style deal, and deemed as a “global Britain.”

Whichever model is selected, Santos-Garcia Bernabe warned that any level of integration will “never replicate EU membership” and its completely frictionless trade because none of these models represent zero border controls, at the moment.

Moreover, with the U.K. still to choose a new Prime Minister, Santos-Garcia Bernabe indicated that any outcome will lead to repercussions for the fruit and vegetable trade, and international trade at large.

The Dutch relationship

Gert Mulder, CEO of grower body GroentenFruit Huis, gave insight into the Dutch position, stating clearly that the Netherlands wants its trade with the U.K. “to continue, to be safe and to be sustainable”, considering the U.K. is one of its main and expanding markets.

Mulder made the point that the Netherlands is a one-stop-shop for produce, with experience of exporting to 152 countries. In particular, following the loss of the Russian market, he said the Dutch are “very eager to deal with the [Brexit] situation”.

“For the biggest products we export to the U.K., we supply 50% of the volume, so you would really notice it in the shops if we weren’t supplying,” he pointed out, adding that currently the U.K. can order Dutch produce up to 11.00am and receive it late that evening. “Late ordering has become more of a habit than an exception,” he indicated.

On the subject of potential border inspections and subsequent traffic jams for the 50,000 trucks carrying produce from the Netherlands to the U.K. annually, Mulder said alternative inspection and documentation procedures are necessary to deal with the high volumes.

“If you want high volumes, you need system controls and not inspections by consignment,” he asserted. “You need a digital exchange of data, instead of documentation, and we’ve prepared for that. We’ve made our databases open in such a way that they can be used for third countries to manage their risk. For trucks, you can also employ a system of tracking and tracing.”

Whatever the scenario, the Dutch are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. “If there’s no deal and we have to certify everything, we’ll do it and we’ve been looking into it,” Mulder confirmed.

Nonetheless, Mulder called for trust among politicians considering the 40+ years of trust with inspection systems. “Don’t go away from that,” he urged, “and I’m happy to hear that that is the attitude the U.K. is taking.”

Mulder proposed an agreed system of reciprocal pre-clearance, as well as an arrangement to keep standards harmonized, with the U.K.’s continued participation in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

“There is a strong relationship between the Netherlands and the U.K. on a personal and business level,” he explained. “The Netherlands won’t move, the U.K. won’t move; we’ll still be next to each other.”


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