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The proposed cuts have been welcomed by the BSDA, whose CEO Gavin Partington said any such move ‘would benefit UK consumers’

The British Soft Drinks Association has welcomed government suggestions it could cut import tariffs on fruit & veg to fight inflation – but prominent suppliers argue it would do little for British growers.

The Department for International Trade has since April been examining how to go about cutting food tariffs on imports from countries with which the UK does not have a trade deal. Trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan warned this process could take time, and may face further scrutiny depending on who succeeds Boris Johnson as prime minister.

The proposed cuts have been welcomed by the BSDA, whose CEO Gavin Partington said any such move “would benefit UK consumers” struggling with the highest inflation in four decades.

“A tariff suspension lowering the cost of importing oranges would benefit UK consumers and the UK economy by ensuring a continued supply of quality products, a potential reduction in retail prices and the growth of the category which, in turn, would increase production and employment opportunities,” said Partington, whose association’s members include Britvic, Cargill, Coca-Cola Great Britain, Princes, Red Bull and Tropicana.

However, opposition to the proposals, which were floated on several occasions by Boris Johnson, emerged from one of the country’s leading fruit & vegetable supplier groups, who said the government should address labour shortages before it encouraged food imports.

“Government policy on the restriction of labour for British growers has resulted in over half of the Lea Valley salad growers opting to leave their glasshouses empty this year,” said Lee Stiles, secretary of the century-old Lea Valley Growers Association.

Tariff cuts would be “a kick in the teeth” for UK fresh produce suppliers, Stiles said, as the measures would do little for British growers who “cannot produce economically due to high energy and input costs combined with a 40% shortfall of workers”.

The proposed cuts would target fruit & vegetables, such as bananas, that the UK does not grow. But Stiles said with around 80% of salad crops eaten in the country sourced overseas, the government needed to resolve contradictory policies that had Defra on the one hand promising grants for glasshouse-building, but the Home Office tightening rules around hiring seasonal workers from abroad.

But other fruit & vegetable suppliers said tariff cuts could reduce costs in supply chains and in turn prices for consumers. The BSDA’s Partington added to those calls by saying tariff cuts could help hard-pressed consumers eat better at a time when wallets were being squeezed. “All age groups in the UK are falling short on their ‘5 a day’ consumption of fruit & vegetables” he said. “A tariff suspension would also help make 100% orange juice more accessible to consumers looking to achieve their health goals,” he added.

The UK imports around 45% of the food consumed in the country, according to various government reports, but the percentage rises closer to 80 for fresh fruit. Supplies of some fruit & vegetables could be threatened by drought in southern Europe and in northern Italy in particular, some in the food industry have warned.

Last week some UK-based rice businesses said they opposed tariff cuts as such measures would, they claimed, undermine the UK’s production of rice-based fare, an industry the Rice Association said was worth almost £1bn annually despite no rice being grown domestically. 

More than 80% of the rice imported for such production already entered the country tariff-free, the association pointed out, cautioning against further cuts, which still others have argued would amount to the UK ceding negotating leverage in current and future free trade deal talks.