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Imported wheat assurance

The 2020 UK wheat crop was the smallest since 1982 and UK flour millers had to increase their use of imported wheat to compensate. This article dispels some of the misinformation around the standards and assurance of imported wheat and also highlights the role Red Tractor plays in the UK milling wheat market.


All domestic wheat used by UK millers is assured under the Red Tractor Combinable Crops scheme, which sets out standards growers must meet in terms of good farming practice, storage, and food safety, as well as environmental protection. Importantly, Red Tractor farms are independently audited on an annual basis to ensure compliance.


UK millers also use imported wheat, primarily from Germany and Canada, but also from France and the USA. This is sometimes imported for provenance (for example using French wheat to make French style flour), but mainly for its quality and technical characteristics. Canadian, German and US milling wheats imported to the UK are higher in good quality protein than domestic wheats and play an important part in reinforcing the quality and performance of bread flours which also incorporate home-grown wheat. Nevertheless, in a normal year, approximately 85% of all wheat used by UK millers is sourced in the UK.


Some UK farmers believe that imported milling wheat does not meet any assurance standards and this is putting them at a competitive disadvantage. This is not the case.


  • Wheat imported by UK millers is generally more expensive than UK supplies, because of its protein characteristics and high protein content. At end October 2021 AHDB was quoting a delivered price for UK bread wheat in Northamptonshire of £225 per tonne; in the same week, German E wheat – the type mainly imported by millers – was quoted at £265 per tonne, US spring wheat about £300 and Canadian wheat was around £350 per tonne. Not surprisingly, therefore, millers prefer to maximise use of home-grown wheat provided it is of the right technical standard and comes with the necessary level of assurance.


  • While there are farm assurance schemes in some origins, they are generally not as comprehensive as Red Tractor and do not necessarily require an annual farm inspection. However, in many supply regions, the control and adherence to the law in terms of quality, environmental and food safety is inspected by State bodies rather than farmer-funded independent inspections. For example, in the main supply region used in Northern Germany there is an extensive inspection scheme managed by the Länder (German state level administrations) that is both comprehensive and rigorously enforced. Inspection may not be every year, but it can be without notice and if irregularities are found then there will be limits on marketing and fine of up to 100% of single farm payments. Like Red Tractor, the requirements cover food safety, environment, and legal compliance. There are also commercial farm assurance schemes in France that require annual inspection, but these cover only a small proportion of production. Much of the wheat sourced from Canada is grown under a supply contract with specific terms and inspections.


  • The lack of a universal farm assurance scheme means that imported wheat is subject to a much more rigorous system of checks and tests than home-grown. In addition to checks on technical specification, a sample will be taken on each lot of 200 tonnes and tested for a full suite of pesticide residues, mycotoxins, and other potential contaminants at the seller’s expense. Checks are undertaken as grain leaves the farm (or cooperative), at loading and at discharge of vessels. A third-party inspector will be on hand at loading and discharge of vessels to ensure that everything is in compliance. Suppliers are required to demonstrate compliance with the modern slavery act.


  • Shippers and grain merchants are required to participate in their own assurance schemes such as TASCC, GAFTA or GMP+ trade assurance schemes.


In short, the level of control and inspection applied to imported wheat is much higher than for UK Red Tractor assured grain, and there is consequently a heavier cost burden on imports. The cost of tests and certification alone are higher than the Red Tractor membership fee, but the suppliers still have the costs of demonstrating legal compliance, insurance and record keeping required for a defence of due diligence. Red Tractor certification and inspection means that these costs are avoided by UK growers, giving them a competitive advantage. Additionally, if the Red Tractor scheme was to be wound down it is likely that in today’s marketplace multiple schemes would be established, restricting UK growers’ ability to supply different end users unless they signed up to more than one scheme, with additional administration and audit burdens as a result.


UK millers will blend imported and homegrown wheat to produce some flours. This is a crucial process to ensure consistent quality and functionality and is not carried out in order to mix unassured grain with assured grain - from the perspective of the miller, both imported and homegrown grain are assured, albeit under different schemes and in different ways. However, this does mean that many flours and flour-based goods cannot carry the Red Tractor marque on labels, as this is also a declaration of origin and requires 100% of the wheat used to be homegrown.

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