Importing organic produce
European Union (EU) legislation requires that imported organic food from third countries be produced to the same standards as that from the UK/EU.
Until third country producers and processors are registered with an EU approved organic control body, imports authorised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) from these countries are also permitted. Seeds, animal feedstuffs and unprocessed cotton are also subject to the import controls for organic produce.
You can import organic produce without authorisation and sell it as organic if it is from within the EU, EEA or from Switzerland and is produced or processed by an operator registered with an approved EU organic control body.
Preparing to import organic produce
What to do first if you want to begin importing organic produce
Importers of organic products from countries outside the European Union (EU) must work to certain European Community regulations.
Registration in the UK as an organic food importer
If you intend to import a product and sell it as organic, you will have to comply with both organic and general consumer food laws. All organic food must come from growers, processors or importers who are registered and subject to regular inspection.
You can import organic foods into the UK from other EU member states and sell them as organic, as long as they have been produced or processed by a company that is registered with an approved organic control body within the EU.
You must register with an organic control body if you produce, prepare, store, import from a third country or market organic products. There are certain exemptions for those who purely retail (including storage only in connection with the point of sale) and for caterers.
You must present evidence of your registration to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) when you apply for an import authorisation. Find out more about applying for organic import authorisation.
Production rules and inspection systems in certain countries outside the EU are deemed equivalent to those in the EU. As long as the products you import are produced in one of these named countries and meet certain conditions, you can import them and sell them as organic without getting approval first.
Applying for organic import authorisation
How to find the correct procedure for importing your organic product
Three categories of organic goods can be imported from a third country into the UK or another European Union (EU) member state without an import authorisation provided they come from an exporter controlled by a:
- recognised control body in the countries deemed by the European Commission to be EU-equivalent third countries
- listed control body recognised by the Commission as applying standards equivalent to EU organic standards in specified third countries
- listed control body recognised by the Commission as applying EU organic standards in specified third countries
If the country from which you intend to import an organic product does not fit into any of the above categories, you must have an authorisation issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or another member state before you import any products. This will gradually fall away as the Commission recognises the organic production rules and systems of inspection of third countries as being equivalent to those in the EU.
All consignments of organic produce imported from a third country into a member state must be accompanied by a Certificate of Inspection that is issued by a certification body in the country of origin.
Importing organic products from the EU
You can import produce from the EU into the UK and sell it freely as organic, provided it is produced or processed in the EU by an operator registered with an approved EU organic certification body. You may, however, need to be certified as an organic processor if you store the goods in bulk, carry out further processing and/or repackage the organic products in the UK.
If your business will be importing organic products (including plants, plant products, livestock, livestock products, or any other food made from these products including animal feed and entirely unprocessed agricultural products) from another EU member state, you don't need to be registered/certified for importing, and an import authorisation is not needed. This is because Defra's equivalents in other EU member states ensure that their organic inspection/certification bodies are working to the same EU regulation as is applied in the UK.
Organic produce grown in the EU and pre-packaged products produced in the EU must meet prescribed labelling and marketing requirements.
Importing organic products from 'equivalent' third countries
Eleven non-EU countries have equivalence status, which means that your business can import organic produce from them without authorisation from Defra as their organic regimes are recognised as being on a par with EU organic regimes. The current list includes:
- Costa Rica
- New Zealand
- United States of America
While you do not need to apply for authorisation to import organic goods from the above countries, you must:
- be certified by one of the UK organic certifying bodies
- present a Certificate of Inspection to the port health authority (PHA) for endorsement
- check whether any temporary or emergency measures affect import controls, tests and/or documentation from a particular country or for a particular product/s - eg produce from certain areas of Japan following the nuclear incident in March 2011
Importing organic products from 'non-equivalent' third countries
If your business will be importing from other third countries (non-EU and non-equivalent) you'll need to be registered/certified with one of the UK organic certifying authorities - read more about preparing to import organic produce.
You must also hold an import authorisation from Defra for the product concerned.
To gain your organic import authorisation from Defra you're required to complete form OB11 - an initial application to market in the EU organic products from third countries.
In assessing your OB11 application, Defra will ensure that the organic products being imported into the UK from a third country are certified by an organic inspection/control body that meets the requirements of IS065/EN45011 and is recognised by Defra or other EU member states for their work. Defra will want to see evidence, largely in the form of operators' certificates, that standards equivalent to Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 have been applied at all stages.
The OB11 application can be completed by the third country's inspection body on your behalf. Applications where the importer has sought the help of the third country inspection body tend to be more successful. Defra will assess the OB11 within ten working days. It's important to note that products shouldn't be imported from non-equivalent third countries before an import authorisation has been secured.
Your authorisation must be renewed annually.
Certificate of Inspection and other import documents for organic produce
Documents you will need for importing organic goods, including the Certificate of Inspection
All organic produce imported into the UK must be accompanied by the correct documentation to allow the port authority to verify your shipment and for it to be allowed into free circulation.
Certificate of Inspection
The key regulation when importing organic products into the UK from countries outside the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area requires that a Certificate of Inspection (CoI) be produced by the inspection body in the third country from which your imported goods originate. You should then present the CoI to the relevant authority in the EU. In the UK this body would usually be the port health authority (PHA) or local authority (LA) at the port of arrival. It can also be a place other than where a consignment first enters EU territory and from which you seek release for free circulation in the Community.
If the PHA confirms its validity, the CoI will be endorsed in box 17 before the goods can go to customs for final clearance to move into free circulation.
There is a charge of £45 for checking and endorsement of the CoI.
If products are being imported by airfreight, a photocopy of the CoI is permitted for temporary endorsement (in the UK only). In these cases the original must be presented to the port within a week.
CoI for goods from equivalence countries
Read more about applying for organic import authorisation. If appropriate the CoI will be endorsed before the goods go to customs for final clearance to move into free circulation.
The original CoI must be presented and endorsed in box 17 by the PHA or LA before organic goods will be permitted to move to customs clearance. If products are being imported by airfreight, a photocopy of the certificate is permitted for temporary endorsement (in the UK only). In these cases the original must be presented to the port within a week.
There is also a requirement that importers pre-notify the PHA of the arrival of goods. Each port has its own form of pre-notification. Find a list of port contact details.
Extract of CoI
The CoI is the general document that must be made available to the PHA or LA. However, if you intend to split a larger consignment into smaller units, you must ensure that your certificate has been verified and endorsed beforehand. When your consignment is split, the divided shipments should be accompanied by an Extract of the Certificate of Inspection, as this will allow customs clearance. All verification and endorsement will be carried out by the PHA/LA.
Problems with CoI
When your consignment arrives at the PHA the CoI, if presented, will be inspected. If this inspection fails, your goods won't be allowed into free circulation and your CoI won't be stamped. There are a number of reasons why this might happen:
- the original CoI not being present when the consignment arrives
- the CoI isn't written in English
- the CoI hasn't been fully completed
- the CoI hasn't been signed and stamped in Box 15
- uncertified amendments have been made to the CoI
- the information on the CoI doesn't match the information on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra's) organic imports database
- the CoI has been completed by the wrong certifying body - for products from approved status countries - or has the wrong inspection body mentioned
It's likely that for very minor errors on the CoI (eg a small spelling error), matters can be resolved by the PHA making an amendment. The PHA may wish to discuss these cases with Defra's officials. In the event that minor corrections are made, they must be clearly endorsed with a PHA stamp and an authorised signature.
If your CoI can't be endorsed for whatever reason, you can still move your goods into free circulation as long as you remove all indication that they're organic. If repackaging is needed, you may be able to get permission to move your consignment to suitable premises for this process to be carried out. These premises will still be under customs control.
Problems with consignments
In some circumstances concerns may be raised by Port Health Officers about the consignment itself and not necessarily about the documentation. Often, the quantities in the consignment don't match those stated on the CoI. If the quantities of the consignment are greater than those stated on your documentation, the consignment will be held.
On the other hand, if the quantities in your consignment are lower than stated on your documentation, the PHA may endorse the CoI with the appropriate alteration.
If the problems with your consignment can't be resolved, a Movement Control Order will be issued and your consignment will be marked to show that it's under the control order. The notice will give details of the steps that have to be taken to bring your consignment to a state whereby your certificate can be endorsed, allowing your goods to proceed to customs clearance. You have the right to appeal any Movement Control Order. This should be directed to the official at the PHA you're using.
Other regulations affecting organic importers
Other regulations and legislation that affect importers of organic produce
As well as legislation relating specifically to organic production and marketing, organic operators must comply with general and food safety regulations. Where there is a conflict, the general regulation takes precedence over the organic requirement even where this will result in the product losing its organic status.
General food regulations
When importing food, you need to comply with general food safety regulations. Find an overview of the legislation for importing food.
You must also comply with a number of food hygiene regulations affecting anyone who trades within the European Union (EU).
If your business imports live animals or products of animal origin, a number of special rules apply. See products of animal origin.
You may also require a special licence.
In most cases you'll need a Certificate of Veterinary Clearance, which you can obtain from the port health authority (PHA). See overseas veterinary certificates and Border Inspection Posts.
General import registration, documentation and procedures
In addition to the Certificate of Inspection, which attests to the conformity with organic standards of your products, your imports are also subject to standard import procedures.
Certificate of Conformity and PEACH
Documentation, systems and certificates for importing
If your business imports organic fresh fruit, vegetables or nuts from any country outside the European Union (EU), you must use the Procedure for Electronic Application for Certificates (PEACH) from the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate, to ensure compliance with horticulture and marketing standards. Read more about using the PEACH system to import plants and fresh produce.
Shipping documents and systems
One of the most important documents that must accompany all your consignments is your invoice, containing as a minimum:
- the goods description
- weight (in kilograms)
- country of origin
- signature and date
Some countries you ship to will have special requirements for the layout of invoices. A freight forwarder or your International Trade Team will be able to advise you.
The Single Administrative Document (or form C88) should accompany your invoice, and Certificate of Inspection (if one is required). This is commonly used for importing goods from outside the EU. You'll also need to check which other documents your consignments may need. Your consignments will also require a Standard Shipping Note (SSN), if arriving by sea.
All of your import documentation must contain the Commodity Code. This is a ten-digit number that describes the items in your consignment. Each Commodity Code has a rate of duty allocated to it. Any restrictions or licences are also listed against each Commodity Code in the Tariff. Read more about classification rules and the Tariff.
Customs Handling of Imports and Exports Freight (CHIEF) is an electronic system which tracks the movement of imported and exported goods travelling by land, sea or air. All of your imports will come into contact with the CHIEF system, so it's imperative that you or your agent knows how it works. Read more about Customs Freight Simplified Procedures.