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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
'Bush meat' disease warning
Pyre
Seven million animals were slaughtered
Tonnes of wild animal meat is being smuggled illegally into the UK, threatening another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, MPs have warned.


We are not in a much better position than we were prior to the foot and mouth outbreak

Urgent action is needed to clamp down on the trade in so-called "bush meat", which the MPs claim could also pose a threat to human health.

The 1bn-a-year trade now rivals drugs and arms as a source of income for criminal gangs, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee says in a report published on Tuesday.

But the full extent of the problem is not known.

Ban needed

An action plan was drawn up by the government in March, following press reports of suitcases "leaking blood" being smuggled through UK airports, the committee said.

Personal import allowance
1kg cooked meat in sealed container
1kg fish
1kg milk powder
But the MPs say progress has been too slow and more needs to be done, including a UK-wide ban on personal meat imports.

Several million tonnes of bush meat is produced in East and West Africa every year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told.

Much of that is for local consumption but there is a growing export trade, with 14,766 kg being seized at Heathrow airport in the past year alone.

The imports, which have allegedly included bush rat, bat, monkey, antelope, chicken and pork, are either found in luggage or hidden among larger consignments of legal goods.

The meat is destined for street markets, restaurants and personal use.

London restaurants have been found selling illegally imported spiced goat meat, rattlesnake and zebra meats, the committee was told.

'Good first step'

The precise source of Britain's foot-and-mouth epidemic has never been traced.

But the committee concluded illegal imports were the "most likely cause" - and had also triggered an outbreak of "swine fever" in 2000.

Committee chairman, Labour's Paddy Tipping, said the government's action plan was a "good first step".

"But it is just a first step. In reality, we are not in a much better position than we were prior to the foot and mouth outbreak."

He said the government needed to:

  • Generate more publicity - including leaflets and in-flight information on planes destined for the UK
  • Increase co-ordination between enforcement agencies such as Defra and customs and excise officers
  • Give more power to port health authority officers
  • Raise public awareness of the problem

The committee was also warned of the potential consequences of the trade for human health.

Shaheen Zar, of the London Borough of Newham's Food Safety Unit said: "Nobody has yet touched on the potential time bomb issue about the public health problem: the ebola virus or monkey pox - that sort of thing.

"I think human health should be in the remit of that risk assessment."

The Food Standards Agency has said the risk to human health is negligible and has ruled out an investigation.

But the committee is urging it to reconsider, in the light of advice from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which has called for "urgent" research into the potential impact on human health of illegal meat.

Defra response

The committee's report has been welcomed by Defra, which insists it is taking the problem seriously.

A spokeswoman said it was training two sniffer dogs to tackle the problem at ports and airports.

It was also mounting a publicity campaign, including radio advertisements and was considering placing "amnesty bins" at ports and airports.

The Cabinet Office was also looking at setting up a separate unit to deal with illegal meat imports, a spokeswoman told BBC News Online.

A full risk-assessment on illegal meat imports is to be published by the government in the Autumn, she added.

The growth in the consumption of bush meat in eastern and central Africa has been driven by poverty and food shortages.



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03 Aug 00 | Science/Nature
16 Jul 02 | N Ireland
16 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
16 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
16 Jul 02 | UK
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