Furious British food importers accused the European Union of using "pseudo- scientific" arguments to set up an effective trade ban on fruit from South Africa and South America, from where Britain gets its entire summer citrus crop.
Food industry sources said yesterday that the proposed restrictions - ostensibly aimed at protecting European citrus plants from pests - could set a catastrophic precedent for the organic fruit and vegetable market.
The EU Standing Committee on Plant Health is due to decide today whether to impose a ban on citrus fruits from countries affected by the non-European fruit fly and other plant pests, unless they are subjected to expensive treatments.
The move, led by Greece, would hand the European citrus market to Mediterranean producers. Greece, Italy, Spain and Corsica produce citrus during the winter. Produce is kept in cold storage for local markets in the summer but would not survive shipment to Britain.
The restrictions would also bring chronic shortages of orange juice in the late summer, when most juicing oranges are imported from the southern hemisphere.
The Ministry of Agriculture is fighting the restrictions but Britain has been isolated by other member states who are sympathetic to the producer countries of the Mediterranean.
British officials in Brussels spoke yesterday of their fears of unnecessary restrictions being put into place. "We are concerned about what the trade effects are going to be, particularly for the South African and Zimbabwean producers," said one. "The other non-producing states do not appear to have woken up to the possible effects on consumers and suppliers."
Traditionally Britons have eaten little citrus fruit in the summer because of poor quality. During the past decade, eating habits have been changed by imports of superior fruit from the southern hemisphere.
Britain now imports 186,000 tons of citrus fruit each year from this source, with 98,000 tons coming from South Africa and 53,000 tons from Argentina and Uruguay. During the winter, the market switches to southern Europe, Israel and the United States.
The pests identified by the Brussels committee pose no risk to human health and have never caused any problems to the British supply trade. The fruit flies die when they encounter the British climate.
The proposed restrictions come against a background of arguments over moves for closer trade links between Europe and South Africa, which is seen as a threat by some member states because of its low production costs.
Doug Henderson, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, said: "The southern member states are using plant health regulations as a means of protecting their market inside Europe ... [the moves] will restrict competition, restrict consumer choice and push up prices."
The EU committee may agree a compromise, allowing the import of citrus fruit which has been subjected to chilling and vapour treatments. Such treatments would not be possible for this year's crop.Reuse content