No trace of back door onion dealers
INSPECTORS have so far been unable to track down the participants in an alleged black market trade in onions.
Wholesalers in the eastern counties say onions usually used for stockfeed or processing are being sold through the "back door" at low prices to members of the travelling community who are, in turn, selling to restaurants and shops in unmarked bags.
The British Onion Producers Association has warned its members of the illicit trade, saying those involved are showing a total disregard for EC grading requirements and labelling.
Farm minister, Nick Brown, says the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate (HMI) has made extensive enquiries at the premises of retailers, wholesalers and packhouses but have been unable to establish the source of the produce.
Mr Brown says in a letter to Bedfordshire MP Sir Nicholas Lyell QC that inspectors have been "frustrated" by reluctance on the part of the traders affected to pass information to them.
"While the HMI have continued to monitor the situation locally, they are unable to take any further action without more information," he says.
Bona fide traders and merchants say their livelihood is being threatened but enquiries launched by the police, trading standards officers, environmental health staff and the Inland Revenue have also met with little success.
One wholesaler, who asked not to be named, claimed onions were changing hands at between £5 and £10/t as a few "rogue" packhouses, across the eastern counties disposed of low grade produce.
The wholesaler said he had to pay £55/t and more.
Rod Brown, chief horticultural marketing inspector with MAFF, said this week that 80-85% of field onions were sold to the supermarkets or went for export.
The rest was sold for stockfeed and processing or at the farm gate.
Any residue would strictly have to be disposed of at landfill sites but it was conceivable that the cost of such dumping might lead to black market deals.
But Mr Brown said his inspectors had so far not received enough information with which to track down those involved. *