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Wednesday, 2 May, 2001, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
New Zealand lessons for UK food safety
Immigrants on lorry PA
If X-rays can find people in transit, they can find contraband too
By Alex Kirby, BBC News Online's environment correspondent and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth.

The UK says it hopes to profit by New Zealand's experience in trying to prevent another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

New Zealand officials examine the baggage of all incoming air passengers, and detect most organic material.

They use both cutting-edge technology and natural detection methods. British port officials say the UK should follow the NZ example.

Details of New Zealand's successful scheme were given to BBC Radio 4's environment programme Costing the Earth.

In January, the programme revealed the ease with which illegal and potentially infectious animal products can be brought into the UK by travellers.

Cooked monkeys

It reported on the inability of overworked and under-resourced port health officers to examine every consignment arriving here, and on the small number of samples that are tested.

Sniffer dog on plane AP
Enter Rover the sniffer dog
In one case, environment health officers at London's Heathrow airport intercepted, by pure chance, a suitcase containing cooked monkeys, imported from west Africa.

Matthew Stone works for the exotic disease response section of New Zealand's Biosecurity Authority.

He told Costing the Earth: "At each international airport we've recently introduced a regime of 100% baggage search or baggage X-ray of all arriving passengers.

"We have 18 X-ray machines which will detect any organic material, plant or animal, inside the baggage. We already have 11 teams of sniffer dogs, and by the end of the year there'll be 22 of them.

"We estimate we already detect about 95% of all fruit-fly host material, in other words various fruit items, and about 85% of meat products. And we believe both percentages will rise."

Possible option

New Zealand has never had a foot-and-mouth outbreak, and says its detection methods are intended to safeguard the country against a range of imported threats.

Mike Young, of the UK Association of Port Health Authorities, believes the antipodean experience could be useful here.

Auckland airport BBC
Auckland airport: No entry for organic products
He told the programme: "It would require an enormous input of resources, both to provide the X-ray machines and the dog teams and to resource the checks, and I think it would be a step change in the UK Government's thinking if they were to take this on board.

"But the controls do appear to be very effective. Although they're heavily resource-intensive, I think this must be something the government must consider as one of the options."

David Statham is head of enforcement at the UK Food Standards Agency. He told Costing the Earth: "That's clearly a very impressive control system that New Zealand has in place.

"With other government departments, we're looking at whether or not there are other measures we need to take. One of the things we'll be doing is speaking to our colleagues in New Zealand to learn the lessons of what they've been doing. It does seem to be effective there."

EU membership

New Zealand has about three million international air passengers a year. The number of overseas visitors to the UK in 1999 was almost 25.4m.

A further difference is the UK's membership of the European Union. Under present regulations no checks are required on food imported from other EU members, whether it is meat or of non-animal origin.

But all meat from outside the EU is subject to testing, although that does not necessarily mean it will be tested.

Costing the Earth is broadcast at 2100 BST on Thursdays until 17 May.

See also:

25 Apr 01 | UK Politics
01 May 01 | Europe
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