By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
The health of people in the UK could be at risk from bushmeat imports and other forms of "food crime", campaigners say.
Giant African snails are popular in the UK
A coalition of animal welfare bodies, environmental health specialists and other groups says the government should hold an urgent inquiry into the threat.
It says the time may have come to set up one agency to tackle "the growing menace" it says illegal imports pose.
The coalition says chicken, beef and pork are all entering the UK illegally, apart from bushmeat from wild animals.
Its members include the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), the Bushmeat Campaign, the Farmers' Union of Wales and Ciel Logistics, an airport-based company.
Bushmeat, mainly from Africa, is the meat of animals from common species like rats and antelopes and also highly endangered gorillas and forest elephants. It is one of the greatest threats to wildlife in some parts of the world.
The coalition marked its launch with the publication of an opinion poll conducted for Ifaw which suggests strong public concern over illegal meat imports.
Hand baggage: One antelope
In the poll, by Mori, 86% of respondents said they thought the imports were a public health risk, and 91% wanted the government to take urgent action.
The coalition says recent outbreaks of diseases like Sars and avian influenza have increased concerns about zoonotic illnesses, those which can pass from animals to humans.
It says the Food Standards Agency has done no research to find out whether highly infectious diseases could enter the UK through "the highly lucrative trade in the illegal import of meat and bushmeat".
An agency spokesman told BBC News Online: "We have carried out an informal risk assessment which has found no link between eating bushmeat and outbreaks of disease, and expert scientific advice is that no link is likely."
Adam Matthews, director of the Bushmeat Campaign, said: "It is time for the Government to openly consider if a single agency should replace the myriad of agencies, departments, inspectors, commissions and local authorities that currently address legal and illegal meat imports."
Grass cutters like this are a reminder of home
Jenny Hawley of Ifaw said: "The UK government should recognise that the potential public health risk is yet another reason to stop the illegal bushmeat trade into the UK.
"Large-scale illegal hunting for the commercial bushmeat trade including into the UK is highly unsustainable for people and animals and represents another step towards extinction for many of the world's most endangered species."
The Veterinary Laboratories Agency has estimated an average of 7,431 tonnes of illegal meat and meat products - including bushmeat - enters Britain every year.
Supplying the trade
This is greater than the combined legal imports of beef into the UK from France, Uruguay and Argentina.
It thinks roughly 85% enters in personal luggage, with 55% distributed through wholesalers, street markets and other traders, sold on at a vast profit.
The coalition says a reduction in frontline customs staff means some ports of entry are left unwatched.
Mori interviewed a representative sample of 1,002 adults aged 16 and over across Great Britain by telephone between 20 and 22 February 2004. Data are weighted to the profile of the GB population.
Bushmeat images courtesy of the Bushmeat Campaign.