Organic growth will come at a cost

Importers of organic wine from the EU will face an extra layer of red tape thanks to Brexit.

The UK has copied the pre-existing European organic regulations, which means that from January the named importer and the first consignee must be correctly certified in a process that will cost £750-plus each year.

Jessica Hutchinson at Vindependents has described the amount of paperwork she is facing as “mind-blowing,” but she’s persevering as some of those wines are among the group’s best sellers.

“The producers already have to jump through all kinds of hoops and do all kinds of paperwork to get that organic status, and we’ve got copies of the certificates so that we know they are organic, so I don’t really understand what this is bringing to the game,” she says.

Lee Holdstock of The Soil Association says: “We fully accept this is an additional burden, which comes as another unexpected dimension of Brexit. Organic wine is a really strong growth category and as a not-for-profit certification agency we’re working really hard to give businesses the advice and guidance they need to get their certification.” 

So, what should importers be doing and how much will it cost?

The first step would be to contact a UK certifier (such as The Soil Association) to gain certification. This involves completing an application and undergoing an inspection. Under Covid requirements some of the inspections can be carried out remotely. 

All this comes at a cost of £750 plus VAT per annum. Once sales go beyond the £250,000-a-year threshold, a levy-based system is introduced at 0.3% of sales of the certified products.

Hutchinson was “pushing really hard” to get her inspection done before Christmas but wasn’t sure it would happen in time. 

“We are seeing a flood of interest,” says Holdstock, “so it is realistic to say that from application to final issue of certificate we are looking at about 12 weeks.”

Hutchinson also raises the issue of other associated costs. “After January 1, if we want to bring in organic wine, we have to send pre-advice to the port authority to say that they are going to be receiving organic wines,” she says. 

“That costs €10 and then they have to inspect the organic goods that arrive in their port and that costs €40 – and that’s on top of the port inspection fee and all the other bits of paperwork that have to be done. We’re lucky because we import vast quantities of wine so we can juggle the cost of the wines that we do, but the British consumer is not going to gain from this process. Whose life is this improving?”

“All this regulation is a double-edged sword,” explains Holdstock. “It’s a pain but it’s an independent rigorous assurance to consumers. 

“We have an independent vetting and checking system right from the vine through to the final bottling. It seems somewhat perverse that you have to pay to prove that you don’t do this and you don’t do that, but that’s the nature of being in a progressive niche market and wanting to protect it from competition that can make the same claims but can’t demonstrate they’ve really done them.

“Once you’ve got this accreditation and certificate you can import organics from anywhere in the world.”

For Hutchinson, that news is the silver lining that will come with her new accreditation. 

“One of our best selling Argentinian producers has got an organic wine, which we haven’t imported before but now we’ll be able to,” she says.

But what’s to stop someone obscuring any organic markers on the labelling before shipping occurs, and avoiding references to organics in their marketing, but maybe employing one of the many euphemisms associated with organics instead? 

“If you’re not going to refer to that product as organic or market it as organic then that regulation does not apply,” says Holdstock. “Obviously we we’d discourage people from doing that. It will fall to Trading Standards to police all of this.”

January 2021