Farmers could be facing a price penalty following reports from crushers across the country of high levels of erucic acid in oilseed rape (OSR) samples, according to the NFU.
While around 97 per cent of OSR in the UK is grown as a low erucic acid rapeseed (LEAR) a small proportion is grown for industrial use as high erucic acid rapeseed (HEAR), of which erucic acid content is usually between 50-55 per cent.
Since samples of supposedly LEAR have in some cases exceeded 30 per cent according to the NFU, the industry suspects there has been significant contamination somewhere along the supply chain.
At these levels, the finished oil product will have to be diverted for non-food use as UK and EU legislation stipulates that oils for food use cannot contain more than 5 per cent erucic acid.
To help ensure these levels are not reached, farmer contracts stipulate a maximum erucic acid content of only 2 per cent.
Guy Gagen, NFU chief arable advisor, believes while samples have been reported as exceeding this threshold, levels are not high enough to sell into the high erucic acid market.
“Some of the contaminated rapeseed could potentially go for biodiesel but in most cases, the acid content is not high enough to sell into the high acid market.”
The NFU, along with merchants and growers are currently investigating the source of the problem, of which there are many possibilities.
Mr Gagen says: “It could be a mistake in some central stores or in individual farm stores. Even if oilseed rape types were separated in store, somebody could have loaded from the wrong pile.
“Seed could have been mixed at planting, or volunteers from previous high erucic acid rape crops could have contaminated this year’s low acid rape crops. The other possibility is that certified seed has been contaminated.”
If farmers are found to be accountable for the contamination, Mr Gagen warns that a high price penalty could be expected.
“I would imagine that the rest of the supply chain will point to the farmer, but whether they are successful depends on the evidence that is gathered following investigation.
“If farmers are found accountable, the potential claims are very high. I have heard figures of around £40/tonne may be deducted from those that have breached their contracts.
“However it is not yet clear whether these figures are actually being claimed or whether money is being withheld until further investigation.”