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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



  140. So you believe that prior notification of the imports of all foodstuffs would definitely assist you in detecting smuggled meat?
  (Mr Averns) Yes.

  141. That would be a firm recommendation?
  (Mr Averns) Yes.
  (Mr Young) It would, Chairman. If I can just add to that, Customs controls have very much changed over the years, particularly at airports now, for the speed of transport. I believe at Gatwick Customs estimate that 90 per cent pass straight through and go for clearance at what are known as enhanced remote transit sheds. Bearing in mind that we have a 24-hour operation with staff looking for 24 hours a day, if we had prior notification we could target our resources to where the risks are.

Mr Martlew

  142. Can I come back a little. Obviously we are sitting round the table today because of what happened with foot-and-mouth and the suggestion that it was imported into the country. The comments earlier from Mr Young and Mr Bloomfield were that the majority of food that was confiscated was not meat. There is a perception that people get off the 'plane with half a sheep in their baggage, and things like that. I think the inference was that a lot of it was fish and that some of it was probably not dangerous but just over the quota. Can you expand on that?
  (Mr Young) In terms of the danger or—?

  143. The difference between it being illegal and possibly dangerous.
  (Mr Young) The theory of the whole veterinary checks regime throughout Europe, on which our regulations are based, is that meat can only come from places where there are equivalent standards—so that it is from approved countries and approved establishments. That, one can only assume, is a risk-based assessment, in that they will only approve premises where they are satisfied there is no risk. So, almost by definition, therefore, if it is coming in from unapproved places there is some risk there.
  (Mr Bloomfield) I think it is fair to say that in terms of public health fishery products and shellfish are actually a greater risk than some of the meat products are.

  144. I am quite interested in what you were saying that the majority of illegal imports tend to be fish or fish products.
  (Mr Bloomfield) It is about 50/50.

  145. Why would people try and import it illegally?
  (Mr Bloomfield) The regime that controls the import of animal products in the EU is quite a Draconian one. You have to bring it from an approved plant in an approved country, it has to go through three levels of checks—documentary, identity and physical checks—and they have to pay for the privilege of having those checks done. So it is quite an expensive and onerous regime. If you can pick up some meat or animal product that you can buy cheaper that does not actually conform, then you can make a profit, and it is the profit motive that drives it, generally.

  146. You had this meeting in April and you discussed at some length the team of six that you recommended to DEFRA. You made a number of suggestions to DEFRA. Have you had any response to those suggestions that you made?
  (Mr Young) Chairman, we have never formally put it to DEFRA. It has been put forward in conversation during our meetings with DEFRA officials, really as a toe in the water, or sounding them out.

  147. After your meeting on 24th you did not come to a set of conclusions and send it to DEFRA for their opinion?
  (Mr Young) No.

Mr Breed

  148. You have put some suggestions forward for Government, and everything else, but would it be your intention at some stage to say that bearing in mind all your experience, all your combined knowledge and everything else, you would then put down a set of principles that you think the Government should consider as a means of actually addressing what is, I think you have said, a continuing and, perhaps, growing problem? You are going to do that?
  (Mr Bloomfield) Yes.

  149. We are prompting Government as well, and I think to a certain extent the purpose of our meeting today is to get from you the evidence on the ground and the experience you have got. In my constituency, many farmers now feel that much of the foot-and-mouth crisis has been blamed very much on them but many of them feel it was because of the lack of resource and everything else which somehow allowed food-and-mouth in, which is not endemic in this country and as an island nation we ought to be able to keep it out. Do you feel that since the foot-and-mouth crisis the Government has really seized the seriousness of the situation and is now beginning to tackle it? Or do you think we are still plodding along in a rather pedestrian way to gradually put together an action plan?
  (Mr Bloomfield) I think that the Government has done an awful lot in the last year to improve on the situation as it existed. The Food Standards Agency has brought out its own ten-point plan on how it proposes to deal with imported food and DEFRA has set up an illegal imports team. These are all very positive moves, and certainly the Association has been working with both those organisations very cordially. We think that they are actually going in the right direction.


  150. What you are telling us, Mr Bloomfield, is that there are a lot players in this field—Customs, DEFRA, FSA and maybe more.
  (Mr Bloomfield) They are the main ones.

Mr Simpson

  151. I recently had to buy for my son a thing called a Game Cube. You may not be aware of it but there is a game in it called Luigi's Mansion. For an old lag like myself I am embarrassed by the ability of an 11-year old to find his way round and through a complex series of doors to try and find various things. You get the impression that, with the best will in the world, this is what is happening in terms of the co-ordination of a series of agencies and organisations to deal with this problem, which is an enormous problem. You quite rightly said that in the last year the Government has made a number of important steps. DEFRA has, in the words of its evidence to us, "taken an over-arching role to co-ordinate measures against illegal imports." Do you think that DEFRA should be the lead agency in this? If it is going to be the lead agency, what else does it need to really co-ordinate the activity of you and others?
  (Mr Bloomfield) I think it is probably for the Government to decide whether or not it should be DEFRA or the Food Standards Agency or some other body. I think the two, the agency and the department, are talking to one another. Mike and I were at the liaison meeting last week and there is very positive work going on with the other agencies, with the agriculture departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and with Customs. I think there is a lot of positive work being done now, and it is fair to compliment DEFRA on the work they have done in trying to bring the European Union forward on some of these issues, like personal imports and what is allowed. There is now a draft regulation that I feel sure is only down to the work of DEFRA officials brow-beating Brussels to get something done about it. It is a European-wide issue, it does not just rest in this Member State, and to get the kind of level of bio-security that this country wants it does need all the other Member States to have it as well. If not, it will be the lowest common denominator that will lose.

  152. What you are saying is that you are satisfied with the DEFRA statement that it has an over-arching role to co-ordinate measures, and you do not think there should be one lead agency that has a focal point for all the multiplicity of agencies and issues that are going on?
  (Mr Averns) I believe there should be one agency to co-ordinate this because currently even with regard to legal imports the Food Standards Agency is responsible for fish and fishery products whereas DEFRA is responsible for meat and all other products of animal origin. Certainly in approaching central Government for advice we do have to go through both different departments. One of the proposals that was put to the Food Standards Agency Board was that the Food Standards Agency should have the co-ordinating role for products of animal origin, and there is probably some merit in that being considered.

  153. So it is Luigi's Mansion at present, where you have this plethora of organisations. I know you are not Government, but from your point of view—you are at the sharp end—and without putting your heads on the chopping block, which Government department in your opinion should be the lead agency?
  (Mr Bloomfield) I do not think it matters, actually.

  154. Come on! You are ducking and weaving here.
  (Mr Bloomfield) No I am not.

  155. You say it does not matter—of course it matters.
  (Mr Bloomfield) I agree with Jon, one agency should have the lead.

  156. Which should it be?
  (Mr Bloomfield) It is very difficult to say that DEFRA should not have a lead on animal health.

  157. A double negative. Wonderful. So what you are saying—
  (Mr Bloomfield) Okay, I will put it in the positive. I think DEFRA should have a lead on animal health issues. Whether or not the Government might consider that the FSA should lead on all public health issues in relation to all food, I think, is perhaps a slightly different issue. I do not think I can give you a simplistic answer to what is a very complex issue.

  Mr Simpson: Fair enough.


  158. You are telling us that there is better co-ordination now and things have improved?
  (Mr Averns) Yes, undoubtedly.
  (Mr Bloomfield) Very much so.

  159. Mr Young, you told us, some time ago now, that you had had 30 operations at Gatwick. Who puts those together? How does that work?
  (Mr Young) They are generally put together by one of my staff who leads on the subject for us at Gatwick.

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