Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

Caviar squad 'a strange priority'

By Mark Lobel

Sturgeon are endangered and covered by international trade regulations

A government crack-down on caviar smuggling is a "strange thing to prioritise" at a time of economic gloom, a shadow minister has said.

Lord Taylor questions the setting up of a caviar squad - a police-led team of 16 trained wildlife inspectors.

They will check special labelling on products brought in to stop illegal trading of the endangered fish eggs.

Ministers say illegal caviar trading is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds and may have organised crime links.

Details of the caviar-inspection team emerged in a written parliamentary answer to Lord Taylor, who had asked for details of the inspections.

The environment, food and rural affairs minister Lord Hunt confirmed that "16 wildlife inspectors have received specific training relating to the labelling of and trade in caviar".

He added: "No work has yet been undertaken with local authority hygiene inspectors to complete joint visits to food preparation centres, shops and restaurants. It is anticipated such visits will be developed in the future."

A Defra spokesman told the BBC the illegal trade in caviar had "devastated the sturgeon population, is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the criminals involved are often linked to international organised crime".

Inspector Nevin Hunter has been seconded from Devon and Cornwall police to lead the Wildlife Inspectorate of 80 inspectors, which will also examine other serious wildlife crimes.

I'd have thought the consumption of caviar was not a majority interest at this dire economic time

Lord Taylor
Shadow environment minister

The 16 wildlife inspectors with specific caviar training have so far visited eight companies licensed to repackage caviar in the UK, with stocks and packaging also being inspected at several retail outlets.

Lord Taylor thinks the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should not be focusing so heavily on caviar inspections at this time.

He told the BBC: "I'd have thought the consumption of caviar was not a majority interest at this dire economic time.

"I can't see 16 of them (inspectors) are needed. One person would be enough to monitor where caviar is served and find out the necessary information."

In June last year the government announced a caviar labelling system in line with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - which covers all sturgeon fish from which caviar is made - and EC trade regulations.

That was in response to the illegal trading of more than 600 tonnes of caviar - worth around 500 for 100g - in the EU between 1998 and 2004.

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