Tate & Lyle Sugars has secured “a sweet deal” that will also see cane imported from countries with lower employment and environmental standards, Greenpeace alleged, following an investigation.
“It looks like the government has granted them their wish,” said Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, on the new arrangements.
But the firm said it was “a complete fantasy” that it wanted to import cheap, poorly produced sugar, under a shake-up at the end of the year, and defended its lobbying.
Gerald Mason, its senior vice president, told The Observer: “We’ve never hidden our issues with Europe. We’ve been quite transparent about it.”
The controversy comes after the government said companies will be able to import 260,000 tonnes of raw sugar cane from anywhere in the world, tariff-free, from January.
However, the only company that currently imports raw sugar cane is Tate & Lyle – one of the few large employers that publicly backed Brexit.
Its name was also carried on the lanyards worn by everyone who attended the 2017 Tory conference, a sponsorship is recorded as an £8,000 donation by the Electoral Commission.
The new tariff-free quota equates to a £72.8m saving, according to analysis by Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigations team.
It is being introduced after a long and public lobbying campaign by the company. Greenpeace said Tate & Lyle had held at least 10 meetings with senior ministers over the last three years.
The Brexit fight split the UK’s sugar industry, because the company’s main rival, British Sugar, makes its product from beets produced by British farmers – and has attacked the changes.
“This is a sweet deal for a food giant with close ties to the Conservative Party and easy access to ministers, but it’s a bitter one for our environmental standards and farmers,” said John Sauven, Greenpeace’s executive director.
“Ditching tariffs on raw cane sugar will boost imports from a handful of countries, all of which use pesticides banned in the UK for being harmful to wildlife and humans.”
But Mr Mason said: “In Australia and Brazil, which are two countries we’d love to buy more from, they have the highest numbers of sugar producers who are certified for the highest ethical environmental standards in the world.”
He defended Tate & Lyle’s links with the Tories, saying: “Yes, we have ministers visit the refinery to talk about the issues.
“We have Labour Party politicians, we have Lib Dem politicians. Anybody who can help us secure the future of our business in the UK, we will speak to very openly and transparently.”
A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “The UK global tariff schedule is tailored to the UK economy and designed to back British businesses, ensuring they compete on fair terms with the rest of the world.”