Skip to main content

Mango Import Ban

Volume 580: debated on Thursday 8 May 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

I am most grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to raise the important matter of European Union’s ban on the importation of Indian Alphonso mangos. I am very pleased to see so many Members in the Chamber, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and the hon. Members for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and for High Peak (Andrew Bingham). I think that that shows how much interest there is in the debate. I am also very pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is present. Although the title of this debate on the Order Paper is the “proposed” ban on EU imports, the ban has, in fact, already begun. It came into effect on 1 May 2014. The ban took place after I applied for this debate. The two events are not connected.

The banning of the king of mangos was an unnecessary step and has caused huge anxiety for my constituents in Leicester, and it will also mean financial losses to British citizens, devastation to the livelihoods of Indian citizens and damage to our special relationship with India. It also raises constitutional issues about the relationship between this House and the European Commission.

Discovered in India in about 1500, Alphonso mangos are unique. Not only are they produced in just one part of the world— India, and more particularly Maharashtra and Goa—but they have distinctive qualities. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s view that these mangos can simply be replaced by another import is wrong. The extra-sweet taste makes this versatile fruit a key component in a wide range of dishes, including mango pulp, chutney, lassi, fruit salads, juices, smoothies, ice cream, mango birfi and many others. I must declare an interest at this point: I am a mango eater even though I have type 2 diabetes.

I would just like to add my support to the campaign and congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have just returned from Goa where I sampled the mangos first-hand.

I am delighted to hear that, and my hon. Friend did the right thing in eating mangos before she landed, or else she might have been arrested for eating them here.

The United Kingdom is the mango’s true home in the EU as we are the largest importer of the fruit. In 2013 we consumed well over 56,000 tonnes of mangos, 4,800 tonnes of which came from India. That is 12 million mangos, which is equivalent in weight to 800 elephants.

The ban will have a hugely damaging impact on our food industry with many businesses set to lose millions of pounds a year. Indeed the cost has been put as high as £10 million, and some have put it much higher. It will be particularly detrimental to the 1.4 million British Indians living in the UK.

Members in all parties want this issue to be addressed and resolved, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in doing so we need to safeguard industries, such as the salad crop industry in the UK, and make sure there is no adverse effect on them?

There are many salad crop growers in urban Reading, and I know that the hon. Gentleman would be keen to protect them. I can assure him that, as I will say in my speech, this has already been done.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he think this is another example of European Union bureaucracy and regulation going too far?


Leicester is the mango capital of Britain. Last year it hosted the first-ever mango festival in Cossington park in Belgrave in my constituency: four giant elephants dominated the scene and many hundreds of boxes of mangos were consumed. Retailers in Leicester have told me that they will face critical losses as a result of this decision and the situation will be repeated in other cities and towns in Britain, such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Southall, Tower Hamlets and Feltham in London.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate—and I think there will be competition with Hounslow in the future as to what is the mango capital of the UK. Last week, I met a number of businesses in my constituency at Western international market, including Fruity Fresh Ltd. They have raised with me great concerns about the effect this step will have on their incomes and stressed how much the mango crop contributes to their annual revenues. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a speedy response to this issue and that we must not just leave it until the end of next year? Does he also agree about the impact this could have on mango growers in India?

I agree, and I will set out an action plan to address the issue, which I hope the Government will follow.

I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and in his response he stated that the reason for the ban was that plant pests and diseases, such as those intercepted in produce from India in recent years, could cause damage to recent salad crops, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). These pests included the tobacco whitefly.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has secured this debate and grateful that he has given way. He is right that Leicester is the mango capital, but may I say how disappointed I was last Friday and Saturday when I failed to find a mango on Evington road in my constituency? All the mangos had been snapped up. I know that many of my Leicester constituents are disappointed that they are going to miss out on mangos this season. Like me, does he hope that the Minister will take up this issue seriously and quickly, because the mango season lasts only 10 weeks?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that it will not be a proper summer without mangos in Leicester. This is a serious issue that will affect many of our constituents.

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he not agree that one of the key issues is that discussions have taken place between the EU and India to ensure that our food imported from India is safe? There is an alternative route to ensuring that mangos are protected, that the right sort of products are imported and that everyone can feel confident that we will not get an invasion of fruit flies.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is an assiduous worker in his constituency, and I know how strongly he feels about this issue. I will set out what the Indian Government have done, which will include fresh information that arrived from India today.

Let me go back to what the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said. He was talking about pests, and said that they had been found in 207 consignments of fruit and vegetables from India imported into the EU in 2013. He went on to say that officials of the EU—this is pertinent to the point made by the hon. Member for Northampton North—voted unanimously at the end of March for a temporary ban on mangos, which is due to last until December 2015. The House should note that this was decided not by Ministers in this Government but by officials. I also heard from the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Shan Morgan, that the European Commission’s case is that this issue has been ongoing for four years and that India had repeatedly failed to make changes.

Let us look at India’s case. Indian growers and importers will face closure, and for many Indian mango farmers, the ban will be devastating. The season in which mangos can be harvested is merely six weeks long. The ban came into force during the second week of this season, which is the peak time for growers and exporters in India, and it means millions of mangos may be left to rot. Today, exactly one week after the start of the ban, we can already see the repercussions of it, with mango prices plummeting in India to nearly half their usual sale price, because of the huge supply that can no longer be exported. That has a knock-on effect on the price of other mangos, and affects customer confidence in the products, which can have a continuous impact on sales, long after the end of the ban.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with Sharad Pawar, the outgoing and distinguished Minister of Agriculture and Food Processing Industries in India, and he told me that the ban came as a shock to him because the EU delegation came to India on 1 April, looked at the fields and seemed satisfied with what it found. There was absolutely no indication of any problem. It then made a sudden announcement that the ban would come into force. I heard from him first hand about the effects on the people of Maharashtra, his home state.

India has already used the techniques of vapour heat treatment or hot water dipping treatment on its exports to Australia, Japan and the US, where this product is not banned, so to do it for EU imports is a completely achievable feat. Today, I received a letter from the Department of Agriculture in India, following my meeting with the Minister yesterday. I was informed in great detail of the steps that India had taken following the audit report of the European Commission in April 2013. The report advised India of the need to take necessary measures to eliminate the potentially harmful organisms found in the crop. Virander Paul, the Indian deputy high commissioner, informed me of a letter sent from Anand Sharma, the Indian Minister for Commerce, Industry and Textiles, to EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht explaining how India has taken necessary steps and describing the ban as “surprising”. The Indian Department of Agriculture further informed me that not only had its systems, procedures and infrastructures improved, but it had increased the number of technical personnel in high risk areas. It had also introduced approved pack houses to ensure comprehensive inspection and certification.

I was informed that there were some stray incidences of phytosanitary non-compliance, the number of which dropped by more than half since April last year and is steadily decreasing. The Indian authorities were even assured by officials in the Commission, in a report dated October last year, that their steps to improve phytosanitary controls were satisfactory. I must tell the House that I have heard anecdotally that this might be part of a wider EU plan for India to open its borders to further EU imports. When a delegation of Indian officials visited Brussels recently, they were told over lunch that if the EU can sort out the export of chocolate, cheese and whisky to India, they can definitely work out a solution for mangos. If that is the case, it is a plot that could easily feature in “House of Cards”. Incidentally, I have noted the Minister’s particular interest in cheese as a former chairman of the all-party group on cheese, and he has also championed his constituents in Cornwall on the issue of cheese, so he knows how important such food products are to local areas.

The campaign to end the ban has come from the grassroots, and I want to pay tribute to those people in my constituency and beyond. A lot of excellent work is being done to overturn the ban and I commend the work of local people in my constituency, including Hasmukh Pabari; Darmesh Lakhani, president of the Belgrave residents and traders association; Joga Sandhu; Shahidullah Khan, the chairman of the Bangladeshi association); and Ratilal Patel. I would also like to mention Monica Bhandari from Fruity Fresh, who has worked hard petitioning and raising awareness of the issue. The online petition, which I hope the Minister has seen, has received well over 2,100 signatures in a short space of time, a figure that is increasing daily.

The right hon. Gentleman pays tribute to many of his constituents who have raised this matter with him. Earlier in his speech, he listed the variety of uses for mangos that people take as read throughout their normal day-to-day lives. Does he, like me, think that many people are unaware of this issue because they do not know the impact it will have on the food they eat? By securing this debate today, on which I congratulate him, he is giving the subject the oxygen of publicity, which will mean that more people will realise the threat that we face.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I know that he is a great champion of South Asian food in his constituency. When he goes to his local Bangladeshi or Indian restaurant this weekend, he will see a pot of mango chutney that is diminishing and that will not be able to be replaced if the ban continues. He is right to raise the issue.

I, along with representatives of retailers and importers of mangos—Monica Bhandari and Neil Chowdhry and Jagroop More and Sakivir More from Morfoods Ltd—delivered a tray of mangos to Downing street. I know that the hon. Member for Northampton North was lamenting the fact that he did not receive one—and no, Madam Deputy Speaker, you did not receive one either—but the fact was that we were getting near the ban and we had to get it to the Prime Minister so that he would have a proper understanding of the importance of the mangos.

Fellow parliamentarians, some of whom are here today—this is a huge turnout for an Adjournment debate—have signed the early-day motion. Some have telephoned my office, some asking to support the campaign and some to ask where to buy mangos. I have written to the European Commission as part of the campaign and will be taking a delegation to Brussels soon to speak to the Health Commissioner, Tonio Borg. When one rings Brussels, one finds that quite a lot of the commissioners are on annual leave or away—they are out of station—so I have not been able to talk to any of them, but we will seek them, find them and talk to them about this. I have also contacted India and have been told that the timing of the ban is problematic not only because it has come into force two weeks into the season, but because India is in the middle of a general election.

This calamitous series of events endangers our special relationship with India. The UK is one of India’s largest trading partners, with India’s exports to Britain worth around $4.1 billion annually—the eighth largest amount exported to a single country. Banning imports of mangos, a significant industry for India, may affect the UK’s wider relationship with India. Our Prime Minister, like successive Prime Ministers, is the champion of the UK’s special relationship. The Prime Minister has visited India four times during his term—more than any other Prime Minister in a similar period—and before that he visited on many occasions. Yesterday in the House I reminded him that next week the election will be over, and he will be speaking to the new Indian Prime Minister. It is essential that we are able to offer the incoming administration an action plan to get the ban reversed. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister understands the issue, and I hope the conversation next week proves fruitful; but the issue is, does DEFRA understand, and will it be prepared to follow the action plan?

The ban affects every constituency in the UK. The vast majority of hon. Members will have in their constituency a retailer of mangos in some form or another, who will have their livelihood affected, and absolutely all of us, including in Epping Forest, will have constituents who like mangos. The Brussels sprouts have decided to take on the mighty mango. I know whose side I am on.

We need an immediate action plan from DEFRA that will reverse this painful and unnecessary decision. The EU has treated an important trading ally, which represents a sixth of the population of the globe, with disrespect. Britain is India’s best friend in the EU and we need to do much more. It was a British presidency that initiated the first ever EU-India summit in June 2000. I was privileged, as the then Minister for Europe, to be involved in a very small way. We have a responsibility, as a Government, to make sure that the ban is resolved, and as a Parliament to scrutinise the decisions—the wrong decisions—of the EU. If we do not act now, in my view we will regret this for ever.

I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate on what I know is an issue of great importance to him and his constituents. I thank him for consistently raising that important issue in every way possible over the past few weeks. We are talking, of course, of the ban on the import of five fruit and vegetable species from India into the European Union, but of mangos in particular.

Let me start by reminding the House that this Government have made safeguarding plant health one of DEFRA’s top priorities. Plants are an essential economic, environmental and social resource for our rural economy, heritage and well-being. The total value of UK crop output in 2010 was £7.54 billion and the annual value of the glasshouse sector, which I shall come to later, is more than £320 million. Of course, the protection of trees and other plants in the wider environment is vital to our continued well-being.

We are all aware of the damage that continues to be caused by the arrival in the UK in 2012 of Chalara fraxinea, the organism that causes ash dieback. That disease and the Government’s response to it prompted a review of our approach to plant health and to the risk posed by pests and diseases to our agriculture, forestry and the wider environment. The review made various recommendations, including the appointment of a new chief plant health officer and the creation and implementation of a prioritised risk register. As part of the increased focus on plant health we have just published a new plant biosecurity strategy. That has been developed in consultation with interested parties in the industry, conservation bodies and others and will help to drive our work on plant health in the years to come. The strategy stresses the importance of preventing the introduction of new pests and diseases—by tackling pests at the border through import inspections, for example, and by working proactively with overseas exporters. Phase 1 of the risk register, which includes around 700 pests and diseases, is already in place.

Let me be clear. We understand and regret the impact of the ban on businesses importing mangos and other products from India. Mangos are one of five fruit and vegetable species banned by the European Commission from import. The others are aubergines, momordica or bitter gourd, snake gourd and patra leaves. Those five species are those on which the highest number of insect pests was recorded in import inspections by EU member states.

Most of the interceptions were made by the Food and Environment Research Agency’s plant health and seeds inspectors, many at London’s Heathrow airport. For the past couple of years, India has topped the list of countries from where consignments with pests present have been intercepted during such inspections. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, because most EU imports from India come to the United Kingdom, our inspectors have inevitably found the most pests from India.

The pests found on these fruit and vegetables pose a threat to glasshouse production in the UK and across the EU. Bitter gourds carry Thrips palmi, and patra leaves carry tobacco whitefly. These pests carry more than 100 viruses which could threaten production of UK salad crops. Were the fruit flies found with the mangos even temporarily to establish, they could undermine the UK’s pest status for our own exports.

The European Commission’s auditors, the Food and Veterinary Office, visited India, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, in both 2010 and 2013 to find out why there were so many findings of pests and diseases in produce coming into the EU, and into Britain in particular. The auditors identified major shortcomings with the export certification system. Their comments after the second visit concluded that

“at present, the system of export controls for plant health in India, and, in particular at the main point of exit for fresh produce exported to the EU (Mumbai airport), offers no assurance with regard to the pest status of consignments or compliance with the EU import requirements, or relevant international standards. Unless the significant shortcomings are addressed the risk of introduction of harmful organisms on plant products exported from India to the EU remains high.”

I thank the Minister for his introduction. Prior to this debate did he, as Minister at the Department responsible for this matter, see the memorandum that was prepared by the Indian Government, which I referred to today, or see any information from the Indian Government about what they have done? He has quoted from the EU, but the Indian Government are very clear that they have acted to deal with all these issues. Did he see any of that information before the ban was imposed?

Direct ministerial responsibility belongs to my noble Friend Lord de Mauley, who takes the lead on these issues. As he clearly cannot reply to a debate in this House, I am doing so today. The point that I was seeking to make with that quote was in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s contention that the Government of India saw the process as a surprise. They should not have done, because the information was clear.

I accept that the Minister is in the other place, but the hon. Gentleman has prepared for this debate. Did Ministers see the submission from the Indian Government before the vote of officials on 28 March in Brussels? Parliament was not told about this and there seems to be no communications strategy coming out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is rather like the floods, which seemed suddenly to have arrived on DEFRA’s doorstep. If the Minister does not know the answer today, will he write to me and tell me whether any Minister saw the submission from the Indian Government before the ban took place?

I am happy to undertake to respond to the right hon. Gentleman in writing on that specific point. The issue is not just what steps the Indian Government have been taking to deal with matters at source; it is also whether the trend in interceptions was declining or increasing. In April this year there were seven interceptions, two of which were of mangos. There were eight instances of missing or incomplete phytosanitary certificates, which is highly significant if we are to have confidence in the system, as I know the right hon. Gentleman would want, and there were 11 instances of wood packing material not complying with requirements. The right hon. Gentleman’s contention earlier was that the Government in India have a handle on this issue and therefore we are seeing a steep decline. That is not the experience immediately prior to the decision being taken, and that is what informed the vote. It is that evidence that was used at that point.

Is it right that Brussels bureaucrats made the decision, or were Ministers of the Crown seized of the matter?

Representatives of all member Governments of the European Union would have input into that decision, and the UK Government strongly supported tight security in this area, for the reasons that I established a short time ago.

Despite that conclusion, the Indian authorities’ recognition of the problems and their undertaking to address them, the number of pests found in produce imports continued to rise during 2013. There have been 20 interceptions of pests in Indian produce coming into the UK in 2014 alone. When the situation was explained to the EU Plant Health Standing Committee, which is chaired by the European Commission and attended by all member states, there appeared little option, if further introductions of pests were to be prevented, but to send a strong signal by banning the import of the products presenting the greatest risk.

India is not being singled out. The Commission has taken similar action in the past, for example in respect of potatoes from Egypt and, more recently, citrus from South Africa—a significant crop in that country’s exports. Other countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, have introduced voluntary export bans when confronted with the possibility of an EU ban. That approach has been successful, because the number of pests found from those countries has been much lower after trade has opened up again.

I am afraid that I need to make some progress.

Hon. Members will be aware that the EU’s plant health law is currently being reviewed. That is due to recognition that the existing law has proved an inadequate tool in the face of increasing international trade and the thousands of pests and diseases that have the potential to be introduced into Europe, threatening our cultivated and wild plants. Negotiations on the revision of the plant health law are now under way and the resulting legislation is likely to include a greater focus on excluding trades that are shown to be pathways for pests and diseases. It is those threats that have prompted the European Commission, with the support of member states—that is the crucial point—to take a more pro-active role in challenging third countries that consistently send pests with the goods they export into the European Union. That pro-active approach with India has prompted the temporary import ban.

I must also mention the international situation. The UK, along with 180 other countries, including India, is a signatory to the international plant protection convention. The point of the IPPC is to prevent pests and diseases of plants from moving around the world, particularly as a result of trade, because of the impact they have when they arrive in a new country. All member countries have responsibilities to prevent pests and diseases moving in trade and so agree to respect other countries’ import requirements. For plants and plant products, that is achieved by issuing a phytosanitary certificate in which the national authority declares that the plants or plant products being sent conform to the importing country’s requirements. The fact that there are numerous instances of pests being found in the Indian products in question shows that the UK and EU’s import requirements are not being met.

I stress that the ban agreed is not permanent. India has had long-term bans on its mango exports to the USA and Japan. By requiring exports to be treated, either by irradiation or by vapour heat treatment, it has managed to overturn those bans. New Zealand also accepts mangos from India that have been subject to vapour heat treatment. If India can take such action in respect of exports to the EU and demonstrate to the Commission and the Governments of EU member states that pest-free trade is possible, I hope that an early reconsideration of the import ban is possible.

The Minister has admitted that the Government support the ban for the scientific reasons he has outlined. Given that many businesses in Leicester and in the constituencies represented in the Chamber today will be adversely affected financially, are the Government prepared to consider any support for those businesses that will lose out this summer?

Clearly the Government’s responsibility, as part of the European Union, is to ensure that we protect our borders from imports that could threaten domestic production. We want to support everyone in overturning the ban as soon as we are confident that the export standards are being met. The right hon. Member for Leicester East is keen to see the Government take action. Clearly the key action resides with the exporters, in their ability to demonstrate that what they are exporting meets the criteria that we need to have confidence in. As soon as we have a clear message that things are improving, I and my ministerial colleagues will be happy to press the European Union to have an early re-inspection so that we can get the ban overturned. We know how important mangos, and indeed other species, are for cultural and economic reasons, as has been pointed out. We want to see them back, but we have to do that in the proper way.

The Minister is being generous with his time. I am pleased by what he said about early inspection, so will he confirm that the Government, as the best friend of India in the EU, will push for an early inspection?

Clearly we want to build on our very strong relationship with India. We want to ensure that the inspection takes place when progress has been made. The last thing we want is for a lack of progress to lead to the ban being extended unnecessarily. We want to see action from the industry to reassure the Commission and all member states that progress has been made, and I am sure that officials and Ministers from this Government will then work closely to secure a re-inspection and have the ban overturned, so that everyone can enjoy the produce from India that they love and that the right hon. Gentleman, regardless of his particular health situation, is clearly missing a great deal.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.