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The BBC's Tom Heap
reports on illegally imported meat products
 real 56k

Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Review sought for meat import laws
Meat carcasses being processed
More meat is arriving from overseas
The growing belief that infected meat fed to pigs caused the foot-and-mouth epidemic has led to calls for a widespread review of British import procedures.

Meat imports from infected countries are banned under UK and EU law.

But every year tons of meat products, some from countries hit by the disease, enter Britain illegally in freight shipments and passenger luggage.

A BBC investigation has found dried meat from Hong Kong and China - banned under the regulations - on sale in Chinese supermarkets in London.


We know [foot-and-mouth disease] can survive in dried food for up to six months

Professor Joe Brownlie
Royal Veterinary College
Although there is no proof the British outbreak originated in meat from that part of the world, the virus is the same strain as that which has been present in Asia for two years.

Professor Joe Brownlie of the Royal Veterinary College said that dried meat is a danger.

"I think we should be extremely worried," he told the BBC.

"We know that [foot-and-mouth disease] can survive in dried food for up to six months, so we really must be very strict in our bio-security in bringing these foodstuffs into the country."

The government has said that investigating the sale of illegal meat products is the responsibility of local authorities.

'Scandalous'

But Conservative agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said this was completely inadequate.

"That is a ludicrous response really," he told the BBC. "Here we have our livestock industry now in jeopardy as a result of foot-and-mouth.

Professor Joe Brownlie
Professor Brownlie believes dried meat imports present a risk
"If a possible cause, which might be the cause of a future outbreak, is to be left in the hands of local councils to investigate, I think that is a scandalous dereliction of duty."

The Association of Port Health Authorities, which represents all major air and sea ports, has warned the government of "serious deficiencies" in procedures for preventing illegal meat entering the UK.

It wants the loopholes allowing illegal meat to enter the UK to be closed, and has reported its concerns to the Food Standards Agency.

Last year, more than five tons of illegal meat was discovered in freight consignments at Heathrow Airport alone.

False labels

Meat imports entering the EU must be declared in advance and are subject to checks by veterinary officers and sample inspection.

But many illegal consignments are labelled as fruit or other non-meat foodstuffs, for which checks are much less stringent.


There should be stricter surveillance of imports from potentially dangerous countries

Martin Howarth
NFU
These can be moved immediately from the port of entry to local storage warehouses, and inspections are generally funded by local authorities, although there is a shortage of inspection staff in many places.

Martin Howarth of the National Farmers' Union said stricter import procedures were needed.

"I think one thing which will emerge from this disease and this terrible situation will have to be a review of our import policies and I think that should happen as quickly as possible," he said.

Passengers are permitted to bring in one kilogram of meat from approved countries for personal consumption, but many flout this limit.

Last year, five tons of meat - some originating in countries affected by foot-and-mouth - was seized from passenger luggage on just 14 flights coming in to Heathrow.

Mr Howarth said: "There should be more public notices warning people of the dangers of bringing in food, especially from exotic locations.

"There should also be stricter surveillance of imports from potentially dangerous countries, maybe sniffer dogs."

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