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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 14:36 GMT
Any illegal meat to declare?
Animal carcasses
The disease devastated both farming and tourism
Farmers want bio security beefed up as meat brought into the UK illegally is thought to be behind the foot-and-mouth epidemic. What can - and can't - be brought into the UK?

Every year tons of meat, some from countries hit by diseases such as foot-and-mouth, enters the UK illegally in freight shipments and passenger luggage.

It is thought that smuggled meat was the cause of the UK's outbreaks of foot-and-mouth 11 months ago and swine fever a few months earlier.

Passengers can bring meat - except beef and some pork - and pasteurised milk in from the EU
From outside the EU up to 1kg of cooked meat in a hermetically sealed container allowed
Flowers and most vegetables allowed, but only in small quantities from outside the EU
Potted plants grown outside the EU banned

In its first full report into the epidemic, released on Monday, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) says the UK's system of inspecting and controlling imports of foreign meat are not strict enough.

Not only do unwitting holidaymakers bringing back food or plants as souvenirs pose a risk, each day illegal consignments of pork, lamb, beef and goat from Africa and Asia arrive, destined for the black market.

And tons of bushmeat - rats, antelope, cows' nostrils, monkey meat, elephant, and oriental sausages - are illegally brought in to stock speciality ethnic markets.

Last year, environment health officers at London's Heathrow airport intercepted, by pure chance, a suitcase containing cooked monkeys coming in from west Africa.

Such foodstuffs can pose a grave risk - the foot-and-mouth virus, for instance, can survive in dried meat for up to six months.

Bushmeat is openly on sale at some markets
Under present regulations, no checks are required on food imported from other EU members.

All meat from outside the EU must be declared in advance and is subject to testing. But it is up to port health officers to examine every consignment arriving in the UK, and only a small number of samples are tested.

Many illegal consignments are labelled as fruit or other non-meat foodstuffs, as checks are much less stringent and these can be moved immediately from the port of entry to local warehouses.

Hefty fines for souvenirs

On Tuesday, the NFU will hold a summit on stopping illegal imports, with speakers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, customs and excise, the British Tourist Authority and the Food Standards Agency.

Travelling nation
UK residents make more than 50m trips abroad each year
1,750kg of meat confiscated from passengers in 2000-01 financial year
The farmers' union wants more public information about the dangers posed by bringing in illegal meat, and stricter surveillance of imports - including luggage - from potentially dangerous countries.

Currently few passengers know what they can and can't bring into the UK, despite penalties of up to 5,000 and/or two years in jail.

And in stark contrast to countries such as the US and Australia, UK airports have few warning notices spelling out what is allowed.

Bio security, too, seems to be a much lower priority than in New Zealand, for instance, where baggage is either searched or passed through x-ray machines that can detect any organic material.

As well as hi-tech searches, teams of sniffer dogs scour for plant and animal matter.

Strict such measures may be, but New Zealand has never had a foot-and-mouth outbreak whereas the UK is still reeling from the effects of last year's epidemic.

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