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LONDON — Global organic food producers are considering cutting their exports to the U.K as they battle reams of costly post-Brexit red tape and wait for a new digital system that still has no launch date.
Since the end of the Brexit transition period, “we’ve gone back basically to the seventies” when it comes to getting organic food cleared at the British border, one exporter said.
Long-term, the issues faced by exporters threaten to increase food prices and reduce Brits’ food choices when they’re picking out what to eat.
It comes at a time when the U.K. is keen to burnish its sustainability credentials in the run up to the COP26 climate summit and cast itself as open for global business.
Getting organic food like French beans. sugar snaps, tender stem broccoli, avocados, mangoes; or passion fruit into the U.K. is now “a total mess, a complete, complete mess,” said Amit Shah, director at VAL Group and TSA International — the largest fruit and vegetable supplier from Africa into the U.K.
That’s because Britain hasn’t yet created its own digital certification system like the one used by the EU to file the long paper trail needed to get products certified as “organic” at the border.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is still scoping out plans to set up its own IT system that mirrors the EU one, which digitally tracks the integrity of products from farm to market. “But we have no confirmed timings for any proposals as yet,” the spokesperson said.
In the meantime, organic certification body the Soil Association is telling global organic producers they will need paper documents at British ports “at least for the foreseeable future.”
Shah supplies large British supermarkets and catering firms — including corporate kitchens in the City of London — with tons of organic fruits and vegetables.
The post-Brexit British system means Shah — who sells produce from farmers in Kenya and Tanzania — is now filing 10 paper documents per item which have to be manually filled out and given to authorities for verification at the border. The EU system Britain was previously a part of, known as TRACES, meant this could all be done digitally.
It’s all “completely manual now,” he explained. “Every day there are these 70 documents you have to prepare. It’s ridiculous.”
The direct and indirect costs now run to about £400 to £500 per shipment, he said, “which is a massive amount when you work it out because we do practically a shipment a day.” He anticipates hundreds of thousands of extra pounds in costs by the end of the year.
The business is “crazy competitive,” Shah said, adding they “rely on efficiency because of such small margins.” Exporters have been left scrambling to adapt.
Despite having two people working full-time on filing the papers, Shah says documents can get misplaced or delayed by couriers. That means over 5 percent of the 30 to 35 shipments the firm has made to Britain so far this year “were not cleared as organic,” he said. “We had to either dump the product or repack, where we could, as a conventional product,” he said, a move that stops products commanding the premium organic goods do.
The dilemma has led to serious misgivings about the U.K. market. “As a company, we are not very keen on pushing our organic lines in the U.K. at the moment,” Shah said. They aren’t withdrawing from the market, but “the potential is there,” he said. There are still customers “who would like to get the product, but we’re certainly not taking any new business.”
Others are feeling the pain too. “We’re aware that there have been widespread challenges with international trade in organic in general,” said a spokesperson for the Soil Association.
Defra doesn’t have a timeline for when its new organic certification IT system will go live. “The level of information we require for imported organic products from third countries … has not changed, but must now be provided on paper,” a Defra spokesperson said.
EU organic food producers aren’t facing the same situation because Britain and the EU agreed to automatically recognize organic foods grown by the other as equivalent. But one organic food importer, Leena Malde, executive chair at the importer Welmoor, is concerned this could change as grace periods on organic goods end in 2023.
In the meantime, third country organic exporters to Britain face uncertainty. If they drop out of the market or export less organic food, choice could become limited and prices are likely to increase, as forecast in a London School of Economics report last September.
“Of course none of our retailers or bigger customers want to take on any extra cost right now,” said Shah, pointing to the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the hospitality sector. “All the costs are being absorbed by the suppliers right now.”
A spokesperson for Waitrose supermarkets, which carries an extensive range of organic products, said it would “continue to work with our suppliers to ensure good stock levels across our key lines.”
Shah said the ongoing wait for a digital system means his company will “certainly have to change our strategies.” He added “From a cost point of view, it’s not looking at if it’s going to be economical.”
This content was originally published here.