BTOM: Yet another u-turn, how many more?

PML Seafrigo Director Mike Parr sets out the profound consequences of Defra’s shock decision to reintroduce physical inspections on imports of fresh fruits and vegetables from the European Union into the UK.

The logistics sector is once again reeling following the unexpected announcement on Wednesday (24 January 2024) that a broad range of European fruit and vegetables is to be recategorised from low risk to medium risk – thus necessitating physical inspections at UK border posts.

The news marks yet another U-turn by the UK government which will have a profound impact on those operating in the transfer of perishable fruit and vegetables from Europe into the UK and ultimately, on the availability of fresh produce on the supermarket shelves. We’ve already endured so much chaos at the behest of officials who seem to be either oblivious or simply don’t care regarding the ramifications of their erratic decision making.

In July 2022, I spoke out following the decision to defer the planned checks on European plant and animal produce and sympathised with the news that British ports were contemplating taking legal action after investing heavily in post Brexit border control facilities. Facilities that were then not required when the timelines were changed.

Since then, the proposed physical checks on fresh food and plants coming into the UK has been constantly delayed. The sector responsible for the transfer of perishable goods has been admirably represented by the Fresh Produce Consortium who has worked tirelessly to put forward the industry’s concerns and at the back end of last year, we all thought that finally, we knew where we stood and could plan our business activities accordingly.

Now once again the goal posts have been changed and the industry is in turmoil.

We have not been privy to the risk assessments that have led to those in power to decree that certain fruit and vegetables now represent a medium risk and must therefore be inspected, so remain baffled as to why there has been a complete retraction of all that has been previously debated and agreed.

We are still waiting to understand whether commercial border control points, such as that operated by PML Seafrigo at its Kent logistics and transport hub, will be approved to conduct these inspections.

We do not know if the proposed Authorised Operator Status (AOS) programme – which was designed to enable those with a designated Border Control Post to undertake the appropriate training to perform the planned physical and identity import checks – is going to be rolled out. Our staff were trained 10 months ago.

We remain in the dark as to whether or not the new Border Control Post Common User Charge is applicable to commercial Border Control Posts.

What we do know is that this latest directive will signal major disruption in the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables to the UK. Prices will inevitably be driven up as more European producers take the decision to boycott the UK market due to the unacceptable costs and frankly, pure hassle, associated with exporting to Britain.

We also know that the facility at Sevington is simply not equipped to cope and the resulting queues for drivers trying to access the government Border Control Post will cripple the transport network. And of course, result in perishable goods sitting in transit for lengthy periods which will have a detrimental impact on shelf life.

Furthermore, if the government goes ahead with this system, Sevington is unable to provide the necessary temperature-controlled warehousing facilities or sufficient staff to enable the removal of certain items from a groupage consignment, which means that a whole consignment would be condemned rather than individual items.

The UK is becoming a laughing stock and many producers are simply not interested in working within its ever-changing logistics landscape. And at a time when the whole nation is being encouraged to engage in a healthier lifestyle which includes eating more fresh fruit and vegetables – in part to ease the burden on the NHS – these very items are likely to become less available and more expensive.

PML Seafrigo is prepared and ready for the new inspection regime and we have the capability to offload problematic shipments at our Kent Border Control Post. But we – like others – can only be effective if our questions are answered and if decisions taken are adhered to.

To say we are frustrated is an understatement.

– Mike Parr, PML Seafrigo Director