The UK government has been told to hand over GBP20m (US$30.9m) of unclaimed customs duties on garlic imports to the European Commission within the next two months or risk being taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Brussels alleges that, between 2005 and 2006, UK customs authorities admitted imports of fresh garlic from China under faulty documentation, erroneously stating that the cargoes were frozen. Significantly higher import duties are levied on fresh garlic. Such duties are earmarked for EU spending.

The Commission said the UK authorities "did not act with all due care" when issuing the authorising documents and failed to collect the correct amount of duties. The UK should be held financially responsible for the loss in revenue, Brussels said.

A spokesperson from the UK's customs and tax department, HM Revenue & Customs, said it was in "long-standing discussions" with the Commission and was "working closely with them to clarify any differences in interpretation of the tariff classification for garlic". He added that HMRC's decision to classify the garlic imports in 2006 as a frozen product was based on scientific advice.