Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Annex 1


  The Committee raised the issue of controlling illegal imports of animal products. The same issue was also raised by the Committee in discussion with Jim Scudamore, the Chief Veterinary Officer.

  The Government is acutely aware of the strong possibility that both Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and classical swine fever (CSF) were introduced by means of illegally imported animal products, meat being the most likely culprit. It is unlikely that we will ever be certain as to the precise circumstances in which these diseases were introduced, but there is clearly a serious risk of disease introduction if import controls are evaded.

  We have therefore been looking critically at how we might improve the control measures already in place and at the introduction of new measures. We must recognise that we will never be able to be 100 per cent secure that no disease will enter—there will always be some level of risk, and therefore a need to have in place effective measures for managing disease outbreaks when they occur. But it is clear that we can do more to reduce the level of risk from illegally imported meat and other products and to that end DEFRA officials have been leading interdepartmental discussions with Customs, Home Office, DTLR, the Food Standards Agency, local authorities (LACOTS) and port health authorities (APHA) since April this year.

  Legal provisions to establish offences and provide powers for enforcement officers obviously form a key element of the effort. We do not think the Animal Health Bill discussed on Tuesday is the most appropriate vehicle for such provisions. We already have secondary legislation in place which addresses import rules and provides enforcement powers to appropriate officers. This legislation is currently being updated to take account of extensive changes in European legislation and at the same time we are incorporating strengthened powers for enforcement officers which we hope will make it easier to arrange enforcement activity at ports and airports. We hope to have this revised and strengthened legislation in place towards the end of this year or early next year.

  However, much of the effort that has gone into improving the situation so far has not needed amended legislation. DEFRA officials have been actively co-ordinating a number of interdepartmental initiatives. These are aimed at:

    —  improving the publicity available to travellers about import rules;

    —  increasing the effectiveness with which information about illegal activities is shared amongst the various enforcement agencies; and

    —  improving the effectiveness of enforcement activity at ports by better targeting the available resources.

  On the publicity front, we have produced new posters warning that only limited products of animal origin may be brought in to the country. These have been posted at all the main airports, and following a review of their effectiveness we are redesigning the posters to make them more eye-catching and discussing with airport authorities how to display them better. We have asked UK travel agents and airlines using UK airports to make information about import controls available to travellers. Again, this has been reviewed recently and we are looking to make further improvements. Recognising that it is most effective to inform travellers before they leave for their journey to the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been active via British Embassies abroad, providing information directly to travellers and via travel agents and local media.

  The new information gathering arrangements we have introduced across all the enforcement agencies have improved our analysis of information about known or suspected illegal imports. We are building up a database of details which is enabling us to target enforcement action and to make best use of available resources. A recent minor legislative amendment has made it easier for local authorities to seize suspected illegal imports when they are found at point of sale and the Food Standards Agency is encouraging local authorities to ensure that checking for illegal imports is part of their routine inspection of food premises.

  We are keeping these measures under review and are already making improvements in some directions, as has been indicated. But we are also looking at a wide range of other options to ensure the rules on imports are enforced effectively and efficiently. These include, for example, the possible use of sniffer dogs and x-ray machines. There are also important questions about the most effective administrative structures to have in place. Ministers from all the departments with an interest will shortly be asked to meet to discuss the issues and to consider the best way to maintain progress in dealing with them.

  However, even against a background of tightening controls, it must be remembered that no matter what level of import controls are in place it is impossible to guarantee that no exotic disease will ever be imported into this country. It therefore remains vital that the country (and farmers in particular) take effective biosecurity precautions to minimise the possibility of spread of any disease that may occur, whatever its source.

  Jim Scudamore was asked about imports of meat from Zimbabwe, following their recent FMD outbreaks. Once we learned of the outbreaks in Zimbabwe, and in the absence of any more detailed information at the time, we banned the importation into England and Wales of all fresh bovine meat from Zimbabwe with effect from 21 August. Community legislation has now been amended to formally suspend imports of fresh meat produced on or after 17 August, although imports of deboned and matured bovine meat produced in Zimbabwe before 17 August are permitted. We have amended our domestic ban in line with the Community legislation, following confirmation from the Zimbabwe veterinary services that meat produced before 17 August for export to the UK was not derived from animals in areas affected by the FMD outbreak.

  Although our main focus so far has been on the animal health consequences of diseases introduced in animal products, we are also looking at the measures in place to control imports of plant products and endangered species under the CITES rules.

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