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HMRC internal manual

VAT Food

HM Revenue & Customs
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Items benefiting from the relief: seeds and plants: scope of the zero rate

Relief applies to all plants grown to provide food for human or animal consumption, and the seeds or other means of propagation (such as spores or rhizomes) used to produce such plants. Theoretically, this interpretation is not strictly correct in law; item 1, interpreted strictly, would cover only those plants which are themselves harvested and eaten and not those which simply produce yearly crops - for example, it would cover vegetable plants such as turnips or sugar beet but not apple trees or raspberry canes.

However, since the intention of the items in group 1 is to keep VAT out of the food chain as far as possible, we have always interpreted item 1 as including plants yielding or producing food for human consumption (as is specified in the law relating to live animals) as well as plants that are food in their own right. This enables relief to apply to the full range of food-bearing plants.

However, just as, in our general interpretation of group 1, we do not accept food as including all edible products, so we do not allow relief to all edible plants, but restrict it to those whose primary purpose is to provide food. For example, it is possible to make substitute coffee from acorns so, to some extent, the oak tree could be described as a food-bearing plant. However, we would not consider that an oak tree would be eligible for relief because, when oak trees are sold, it is almost invariably for landscaping or forestry purposes. Similarly, many everyday garden plants such as nasturtiums or lavender have culinary applications; but relief would only apply to those plants which have been specifically reared for culinary use and held out for sale as such.

All seeds that produce food of a kind used for human consumption or animal feeding stuffs can be zero-rated. Examples would range from vegetable seeds, seeds for producing culinary herbs, through to wheat, barley and other agricultural seeds grown to produce food for human and animal consumption. However, any seed that generally produces items that are not fed to humans or animals is always standard-rated: for example

  • seeds for growing flowers (including bulbs),
  • agricultural crops for industrial/non-feed use, and
  • seeds that produce plants and trees mainly for their ornamental effect.

Grass seed is the exception (see VFOOD3540).

Although the supply of certain edible flowering plants can be zero-rated, supplies of seeds that produce flowering plants that can be occasionally eaten remain standard-rated. There are no DEFRA regulations to differentiate between seeds grown to produce edible flowers and those grown purely for ornamental purposes. To distinguish the same seed simply by changing the packaging and description is not enough for the liability to change.

Industrial crops

All agricultural crops that are specifically grown to produce food of a kind for human consumption or animal feeding stuffs can be zero-rated. However, any crop that generally produces items that are not fed to humans or animals (for industrial purposes) is always standard-rated. For example,

  • evening primrose is grown for the extraction of its oil;
  • tulips and hyacinths are grown and sold for ornamental purposes;
  • Norfolk reed is grown for thatching material.