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

Memorandum submitted by The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (F11)

  Founded in 1883, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health CIEH is a professional and educational body, dedicated to the promotion of environmental health and to encouraging the highest possible standards in the training and the work of environmental health professionals.

The Chartered Institute has approximately 9,500 members, most of whom work for local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As well as providing services and information to its members, the Chartered Institute provides information to government departments and evidence to them on proposed legislation relevant to environmental health.

  In 1993 the Chartered Institute became the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Management in Europe.

  1.  The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Government's Action Plan. CIEH members, working at seaports, airports and inland, to ensure the safety of food products entering the UK, are greatly concerned about the quantities of illegal imports that have been uncovered and believe that these are only a small proportion of the total entering the country. Checks on just six flights landing at Gatwick Airport this year have revealed some 800 kgs of illegally imported products including meat (cooked and raw), fish, poultry (raw and smoked), snail meat and welly meat (hide meat), in passenger baggage.

  1.1  As a consequence the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Action Plan (2002-2003) is broadly supported, however the following issues are raised.

  1.2  Risk assessment

  The risk assessment currently being carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) is essential to establish the extent of illegal importation, the potential for infecting livestock and to identify the critical points for taking action. However, the potential risk to human health must also be assessed. Illegal meat imports will not have been transported under appropriate hygiene conditions and are unlikely to have undergone any form of meat inspection that would meet European standards. As a consequence such meat may well be parasitised, contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and/or viruses and might also be chemically contaminated. Recent incidents involving poultry contaminated with nitrofurans have illustrated the potential for contamination in legal imports, highlighting potential risks of illegal imports. Research into the potential for adverse human health effects should be carried out as a matter of priority.

2.   Co-operation between agencies

  Control over imports is shared between a number of different agencies. In order for controls to be effective, it is essential that there is enhanced collaboration between the relevant agencies.

3.   Effective intelligence

  Information on relevant issues must be readily and rapidly shared and measures to facilitate this should be developed as a matter of urgency eg through the use of standard information systems.

4.   Legal powers

  The proposals to give new powers to enforcement officers are welcomed, however, they must include powers both to search and stop. Without the power to stop passengers enforcement officers will be greatly restricted in their efforts to prevent illegal imports. Whilst it has been suggested that a refusal to stop and allow a search would constitute obstruction, and legal action might be taken as a result, this argument has inherent flaws. Experience at Gatwick Airport has shown that the majority of persons found illegally importing foodstuffs are not United Kingdom residents. As a consequence legal action for obstruction is unlikely to be practicable, nor would such a course of action prevent the illegal importation of products, as it would appear not possible to seize or detain personal baggage merely on suspicion.

  If stop powers are not provided environmental health staff will be reliant on Customs Officers to stop passengers, to allow searches to be carried out. This would not be an efficient use of resources and is likely to hinder effective control.

  In addition, as part of legislative amendments, it must be ensured that such enhanced powers for environmental health staff extend to all products of animal origin and include the authority to serve notices, seize and destroy all relevant illegal imports.

  4.1  Powers to take enforcement action are currently extremely limited due to the non-implementation of EC Directive 97/98. The requirements of the Directive should be swiftly implemented and should include a mechanism to amend the United Kingdom Regulations, that result, to take account of relevant EC Decisions.

  4.2  The provision of new powers for enforcement will not be effective unless they are supported by adequate resources. Whilst port health authorities are able to make charges for checks on legal imports, no such recovery of costs is available for surveillance for illegal imports. Resource difficulties are a particular issue at ports/airports that are not Border Inspection Posts (BIPs), where full cover is not provided. As a consequence, resources will need to be made available to tackle the whole problem of illegal imports.

  4.3  Illegal imports are not only found in passenger baggage but also in cargo. Illegal consignments have been found concealed amongst fruit and vegetables, containers of mixed foodstuffs and amongst consignments described as "personal effects". As a consequence enforcement officers should be given powers to examine all consignments of imported goods, even those not declared as foodstuffs, where intelligence suggests the presence of smuggled Products of Animal Origin (POAO).

  4.4  Currently prior notification of imports is only required for POAO. In order to combat smuggling of POAO in consignments of other foodstuffs there should be prior notification of all food imports. This is of particular importance in the case of airports, where speed of transportation can "out run" intelligence gathering.

  4.5  Products of non-animal origin can move rapidly through airports to Enhanced Remote Transit sheds (ERTS) and from there to national distribution before the food safety authority becomes aware of the existence of the consignment. Whilst the risk from such products is lower than for POAO there are still issues of potential contamination. Although legislation relating to such products is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency, the changes recommended above would make the detection of illegal imports easier, as well as permitting the improvement of food safety controls on the products themselves. This illustrates an area where effective joint working could enhance food safety.

  4.6  Where POAO are discovered that have not been imported via a Border Inspection Post there is currently a requirement to notify the relevant Authorities (Section 20(7) of the Products of Animal Origin (Imports and Exports) Regulations 1996). The proposed amendments to the legislation should include this provision, so as to assist small sea ports and airports, such as London City, and ensure that operators of ERTS notify the presence of any POAO found with other foodstuffs.

5.   European Action

  Illegal imports do not only enter the UK directly from third countries but may also enter via European Union ports and/or airports. There is no routine surveillance of foodstuffs entering from the European Union and in such cases, where illegal imports are involved, detection is only possible at retail or wholesale level. Whilst the Action Plan proposes to work with the European authorities in order to tighten up enforcement, action is required to address problems found currently in the UK.

  5.1  In order to identify and track such illegal imports, additional surveillance will be required from inland local authorities, at ERTS and at wholesale and retail level in order to identify outlets and markets. Once again adequate resources will be essential to facilitate such work and clear guidance will need to be provided for local authorities, especially where such work is not routine. Requirements for local authority action must also be detailed.

6.   Publicity

  Some action has already been taken to raise public awareness of the United Kingdom's rules on the importation of foodstuffs but this needs to be enhanced. Checks on passenger baggage have shown that many cases of illegal importation are apparently due to a lack of knowledge of the "rules", with products being brought in for personal or family consumption. Any such publicity material must be effective for all travellers, not just those who can read English. As a consequence publicity material should include visual representation and key messages in a variety of languages (based on the target audience). However, despite such action it is likely, due to the complexity of the allowances, that there will be confusion.

  As a consequence it is recommended that there should be a total ban on personal imports of POAO eliminating the possibility of misunderstandings.

7.   Deterrence

  In terms of deterrents, the penalties need to be suitably robust and the Action Plan acknowledges this requirement. The publicity identified as necessary should also highlight the rigorous checks that will be made and the consequences/penalties that may be levied for illegal importation of foodstuffs. Urgent implementation of EC Directive 97/98 is required to allow effective enforcement action to be taken.

8.   Resources

  In order to tackle the issue of illegal imports additional resources will be required. Resources are not only required in monetary terms but also in competent, experienced personnel. It is suggested that some 10 teams (of six persons) be based at major sea and airports across the country. Such teams would be able to deal with issues in the area in which they were based and could also respond to requests for help and support from other authorities. The teams should not only search passenger baggage but also carry out comprehensive checks on food and other cargo consignments where intelligence indicates the risk of smuggled foodstuffs. Suitable facilities would need to be made available for searching baggage, preferably within the Customs area, as can be found in other countries. Such additional staffing would enable robust enforcement/legal action to be taken more effectively. Clear guidance and/or a code of practice should be issued to such teams in order to ensure a consistent approach.

9.   Other specific measures

  Whilst the use of detector dogs has been found to be effective in other countries the cost of maintaining such animals would be considerable when including kennelling and supervision. A single dog would only be able to work effectively for short periods at a time and so would have limited impact. Currently it is suggested that there should be little problem in detecting illegal imports, due to the quantities entering the country. Enforcement officers have suggested that initially money be spent on supporting their additional activities and that the use of detector dogs be considered at a later stage, when imports become "more difficult to find".

  Investigation into the use of X-ray equipment should be pursued, however any investigation should include a cost benefit analysis as part of the exercise.

  The proposals for amnesty bins and amended landing cards for all passengers would seem appropriate. Similarly research into methods of detecting illegal imports would be supported.

17 May 2002


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