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

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (F14)


  1.  For very many years the UK has imposed import restrictions on meat and other products of animal origin from third countries. These rules apply to commercial consignments and to imports for personal consumption. At first under national legislation and subsequently under EU rules, these controls have provided an effective barrier and the country remained free of exotic disease. After a 20-year period of such freedom the country was faced with outbreaks of Classical Swine Fever in 2000 and Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) in 2001. The exact origins of these outbreaks are unknown, but it is considered that the most likely route is that the virus was imported into this country through an animal product, probably meat.

  2.  Whilst meat or animal products imported through legal channels remain a theoretically possible source of infection, the likelihood is that an illicit consignment of meat or animal products from a country with endemic FMD would pose the greater risk of introducing infection. In recognition of the need to improve our ability to prevent and detect illegal imports early in the outbreak DEFRA, in consultation with other relevant government departments and agencies increased its effort to tackle the problem of illegal imports. This work has gained momentum since the focus of activity shifted from fighting the disease itself to preventing future outbreaks, leading up to the high level Forum on illegal imports chaired by the Secretary of State.

  3.  The Forum on 21 March 2002 was attended by leaders of farming, food, trade, rural, environmental and consumer bodies and, following further discussions resulted in the Action Plan published on 28 March. The Action Plan commits the Government to a range of measures including a quantitative risk analysis, improved publicity and practical measures. The Action Plan covers imports from third countries of plants and plant products as well as animal products. Different elements of the Action Plan may be taken forward over different time-scales and the results of one may require review and refinement of an earlier action. This iterative process will help to define control arrangements that are appropriate to the UK and take account of developments at the European level. The Department has created a new unit of 12 posts, supported by specialist colleagues, to take forward its implementation taking account of the evidence and the risk assessment and in accordance with the principles of proportionality and openness. We are committed to acting in full discussion at all stages with stakeholders.

  4.  The Department recognises the concern of farmers in particular that strict controls on their activities designed to prevent the spread of disease should be accompanied by equally effective measures to prevent disease from entering the country. It recognises that there is more to do in this area and that action has to be taken within a wider framework of measures, in this country and within the EU, to prevent and control outbreaks of disease. As part of the Action Plan we are paying close attention to controls and operating procedures in other countries. It is recognised by all countries that it is not a simple matter to establish appropriate and proportionate controls to prevent the entry of disease, that no controls can be 100 per cent guaranteed to exclude disease and separate controls that must be maintained within each country to prevent the spread of disease.


Roles and responsibilities

  5.  The roles and responsibilities of the Government Departments and enforcement agencies and concerned with this area are as follows:


    DEFRA is the lead department for animal and plant health and protection of wildlife through regulation in trade in endangered species. The Department incorporates the State Veterinary Service and the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate.

    Food Standards Agency leads on food safety relating to imports of animal and plant products. The FSA oversees local and port health authorities to ensure that they undertake their duties to enforce food safety legislation.


    Local/Port Health Authorities are responsible for enforcing the law requiring veterinary checks on products of animal origin, including measures to ensure that no products evade such checks. They are also responsible for checks on properly presented consignments entering the UK from third countries at approved Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). Local Authorities (Environmental Health and Trading Standards) are responsible for checks at retail points and other establishments to ensure compliance with import rules, food safety and labelling law.

    State Veterinary Service (SVS) are responsible for checks on live animals arriving at BIPs and for checks on animal products not intended for human consumption where a BIP is only authorised for products not for human consumption. The SVS monitors standards at BIPs approved for products for human consumption.

    Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate are responsible for checking the plant health status of material imported from outside of the EU.

    HM Customs are responsible for ensuring that animal products are not given clearance until all veterinary checks have been satisfactorily completed; for documentary checks for plant products. They are also the lead enforcement agency for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

    Meat Hygiene Service carries out checks on imported meat at cutting plants, including checks on specified risk material (SRM).

  6.  Each Local/Port Health authority must deploy its staff in accordance with the volume and nature of the products involved, both to fulfil their obligations to carry out the level of checks required by law and to carry out additional checks for illegal imports. Some 196 local authority staff were employed on import checking in November 2001 (97 Environmental Health Officers, 48 Official Veterinary Surgeons and 51 support staff).


  7.  The regime of controls, checks and enforcement on imported animal and plant products is determined by the risk they pose to the importing country. Different regimes apply in respect of imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products.

  8.  Movement of animals between EU countries and from third countries is strictly controlled and requires veterinary inspection and certification in the country of origin and certain veterinary checks on arrival. Animals from third countries may only enter the EU through a Border Inspection Post (BIP) where all animals are inspected.

  9.  Within the EU there is generally free circulation of animal products between member states, although restrictions may be imposed from time to time as a result of animal disease in the country of origin. Products for personal use are not restricted. Movement of some plants within the EU is subject to a regime of checks and plant passports.

  10.  Commercial consignments of the majority of animal products from third countries may only enter the EU through a BIP and are subject to veterinary checks. The key requirements of the veterinary checks regime applied to consignments of meat and other animal products from third countries are:

    —  Pre-notification of all consignments.

    —  Presentation at an authorised BIP.

    —  100 per cent documentary and identity checks.

    —  Physical checks that depend on the product and take account of risk (eg a minimum of 50 per cent of poultry, game and honey and 20 per cent of beef and lamb consignments must be checked).

    —  Import declarations will not be given clearance by HM Customs until all veterinary checks are satisfactorily completed.

  11.  Imports of plants from third countries must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate issued by the country of export, indicating that they have been subject to appropriate risk mitigation measures in the country of origin and found free of pests and diseases by inspection. Most consignments are notified in advance by importers to facilitate clearance at the port or airport and inspection at the place of destination. Consignments that have not been pre-notified are held by Customs until arrangements for inspection have been made.

  12.  Plant products do not currently have to be pre-notified and may be imported through any port or airport. Consignments must be accompanied by a full and accurate manifest and may be subject to public health or plant health checks. Plant products are subject to the EU Plant Health Directive and some categories of plant material from third countries must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate confirming official inspection in the country of origin or despatch.

  13.  There has been considerable focus on "personal imports" from third countries, that is small consignments intended for personal consumption or use and which are permitted by law. In summary, individuals may bring into the UK from non-EU countries:

    —  1 kg of meat cooked in a hermetically sealed container;

    —  1 kg of fish;

    —  1 kg of milk powder (from specified countries only);

    —  2 kg of fruit/raw vegetables*;

    —  1 bouquet of cut flowers;

    —  5 retail packets of seeds*;

    —  2 kg of bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes* **;

    —  5 other plants* **.

  * not potatoes

  ** Euro-Mediterranean region only

  14.  Personal imports from third countries within these permitted limits do not have to be reported to, or checked by, enforcement officers. They may be identified during checks and assessed for compliance with the law. Travellers who have inadvertently exceeded their limits are encouraged to surrender material in the Red Channel at Customs.

  15.  There has been considerable concern expressed about imports of "bush meat". This term generally means meat from wild animals, other than those traditionally regarded as food animals in Europe. Personal imports of fresh meat from any animal into the UK from a third country are prohibited. Where bush meat derives from protected species it is also covered by controls in accordance with the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) an international agreement restricting trade in endangered species, their products or derivatives.

  16.  Any animal, plant, animal or plant product from a third country that enters the UK by any route that does not comply with these controls and restrictions is an illegal import. The Government's programme is aimed at improving prevention and detection of illegal imports to reduce outbreaks of disease that may be linked to imports. The quantitative risk assessment that commenced in March 2002 is intended to identify the risk of importing disease within each of the enforcement regimes and thereby to assist in targeting enforcement action (for example it may be appropriate to increase checks on consignments of products of non-animal origin if they are identified as a route for commercial scale illegal imports of meat).

  17.  In the case of the FMD outbreak in 2001 there are essentially four possible routes by which disease could have entered the country, bearing in mind that to present a risk the virus must enter the country in a viable state and a minimum infectious dose must reach a susceptible animal. Those routes were:

    —  a legal consignment of meat from a country with FMD (these imports are subject to strict veterinary requirements to ensure that the meat poses no risk of carrying the disease);

    —  personal imports;

    —  illegal commercial scale imports;

    —  ship or airline waste not disposed of in accordance with statutory requirements.

  18.  The perception of risk and the actual risk posed by these likely routes may be very different. Legal commercial consignments remain a theoretical source of infection, but the production requirements and the degree of checks involved makes this extremely unlikely. Personal imports, whether within or over the legal limit are more likely to be used and disposed of in domestic waste and disposed of by landfill or incineration, although it is recognised that there is a risk that some larger illegal consignments might be sold to the restaurant trade and be disposed of as catering waste. Illegal consignments on a commercial scale destined for catering and restaurants would present the greatest risk. For these consignments to enter the country they must either circumvent checks by being landed outside of the BIP procedures or be deliberately concealed or described as other goods. Since 1973 catering waste has been subject to requirements for cooking to destroy infectious agents before feeding to livestock. Feeding waste food is now banned.


  19.  From soon after the beginning of the outbreak, priority was given to raising public awareness of our import rules in third countries and at ports and airports; and strengthening co-ordination, intelligence gathering and information sharing between the various enforcement agencies.

  20.  It was identified early in the FMD outbreak that there was a deficiency of data about the extent of the potential problem of illegal imports, while information obtained by the enforcement agencies was not collected centrally. A protocol was put in place in May 2001 between enforcement agencies for data sharing on illegal animal product seizures, with information being provided to DEFRA. In August 2001 the results of a simple risk assessment of this data (based on average quantities seized, taking into account the animal diseases present in the country of origin) were produced, ranking the countries concerned in order of greatest risk (for both commercial and personal imports). This ranked list of countries was made available to enforcement officers to help them to target their operations against illegal imports.

  21.  This intelligence sharing agreement also provided the basis for a review to assess the benefits of intelligence sharing and what additional action might be taken. On the basis of that agreement the illegal Animal Product Seizures (ILAPS) database was established within DEFRA. This was the first time a database was provided to hold centralised information from all authorities. Action is continuing to seek to improve this system to ensure that it has the fullest and most accurate information available to assist in targeting anti-smuggling measures.

  22.  The Association of Port Health Authorities and HM Customs undertook a number of joint exercises to examine personal baggage at airports. The ILAPS database records that between 1 April 2001 and 7 May 2002 there were at least 942 seizures from personal baggage of which 739 (9.47 tonnes) were of meat or animal products, the remainder were mostly fish. Between April 2001 and March 2002 a total of 1435 seizures (55 tonnes) were made at points of entry from commercial consignments and from personal baggage.

  23.  Publicity and awareness was improved with posters at airports and ports about specific import and export restrictions introduced because of the FMD outbreak and early in May 2001 by the issue of new publicity posters to main airports to alert travellers to the limits on animal and plant products that can legally be imported from third countries. This poster was revised in light of experience and in February 2002 was replaced by a new, more eye-catching poster sited more visibly at ports and airports. In addition, in May 2001 we provided information for Embassy staff in third countries to promulgate locally as it is equally important to try and prevent illegal material leaving the country of origin, as it is to detect it on arrival. Information has been provided to people applying for a visa to enter the UK.

  24.  New powers were provided in May 2001 to permit enforcement officers to take action at retail points where there was clear evidence that meat or a product of animal origin could not have been imported legally.


  25.  The Action Plan (Annex to this Memorandum) was widely welcomed by stakeholders. It contains a number of strands of activity, each significant in their own right. They range from short term actions to make a quick impact on the problem (for example, through improved publicity over the summer months) to longer term actions designed to improve the evidence base on which to target future resources.


  26.  DEFRA has taken an over-arching role to co-ordinate measures against illegal imports. This role recognised the Department's responsibility for animal health, controls over the import of animals and animal products, plant health and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

  In carrying out this role, we are working closely with local authority associations, who are the primary enforcement agencies, and with other partners in central Government including HM Customs and Excise, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Home Office, the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the devolved administrations. When it is needed, specialist assistance is sought from those best placed to provide it, such as the Metropolitan Police and authorities in other countries.


  27.  It was recognised early in the outbreak that there were significant gaps in the data available to help form a picture of where the major risks from illegal imports arise and to target control measures accordingly. A quantitative risk assessment was recognised as necessary to provide the evidence basis for policy making. Throughout the FMD crisis, the Government has used risk assessment to inform its policies. It was therefore decided to commission a study from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The findings of this study will help to identify effective control strategies and the most efficient and effective employment of resources (including publicity) to reduce risks to animal health from exotic diseases. Enforcement officers already use local intelligence to make best use of inspection resources. The project was endorsed by the Policy Commission on Food and Farming and by the Illegal Imports Forum. It commenced in March 2002 and is scheduled to run for six months.

  28.  The risk assessment is focusing on four hazards:

    —  Foot and mouth disease

    —  Classical swine fever

    —  Swine vesicular disease

    —  African swine fever

  addressing the question

    "For each specified hazard, what is the probability per year that the importation of meat will result in at least one infection with the specified hazard in the GB livestock population?"

  29.  The analysis, which will consider commercial consignments and personal imports, will be in three modules:

    —  The probable amount of illegal meat imported each year

    —  The probability that meat is contaminated with a hazard

    —  The probability of the import of contaminated meat resulting in infection of GB livestock.

  30.  The risk assessment is being overseen by a Steering Group including external stakeholders and the outcomes will be published.

  31.  Risk assessments for exotic plant pests and diseases are produced regularly and revised by DEFRA's Central Science Laboratory. These risk assessments take account of both commercial and non-commercial pathways of introduction. They are used to inform EU plant health policy development and to raise awareness of specific risks among growers, traders and the general public.


  32.  Although the findings of the risk assessment may help us to refine and target publicity DEFRA recognises that there is an urgent need to improve public awareness of the need for import controls and the rules that apply, in particular during the peak travelling period this summer. The Department's intention is to raise public awareness of our import rules and reasons for them—to the same level of consciousness, for example, that the general public has on allowances for alcohol or tobacco, or an appreciation of the dangers of drink driving. Such changes in attitude take time to achieve. We must also make sure that our controls are understood and recognised by travellers from third countries.

  33.  DEFRA in consultation with other Departments, agencies and stakeholders are developing a programme which is expected to include some or all of the following:

    —  market research to determine the impact of the current message

    —  a short public information video to raise public awareness—for use as a TV filler and, where appropriate, by air lines

    —  multi-media messages—print, Teletext, internet to be placed on sites that are likely to be seen or visited by travellers

    —  appraisal of the siting and numbers of posters at main airports (the main point of entry for imports from outside the EU)

    —  purchase of commercial advertising space at airports

    —  targeted information, for example football supporters travelling to the Far East for the World Cup and using that opportunity to promote the more general message about the risk of importing disease

    —  dedicated pages within the DEFRA website to improve information on the Action Plan, progress and to make available publicity material on-line as soon as it becomes available.


  34.  There is an urgent need to develop further the networks for information gathering and sharing, including the role of IT. There are several separate databases and initiatives maintained and pursued by enforcement agencies including the Food Standards Agency, HM Customs and Excise and the Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit established in April 2002 within the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

  35.  The Forum identified concern that there was a lack of understanding of the enforcement regimes and that this was in part as a result of the number of agencies involved and the types and frequency of checks required under the different enforcement regimes. The Government is considering further how best to address this. DEFRA is taking the lead in preparing a clear and simple guide to roles, responsibilities and powers of the agencies involved. Increased co-operation between enforcement agencies will help to improve consistency of approach and clarify roles and responsibilities where illicit goods are found.

  36.  On 22 May 2002 (in England and Wales, a little later in Scotland) legislative changes came into effect to extend the search powers of local authority enforcement officers to include personal baggage and all commercial consignments, whether or not they are described as food. The Department will provide guidance and assistance to enforcement officers to ensure that their powers are used properly and will work to ensure full and proper co-operation between enforcement authorities. We are also working with the Food Standards Agency which has produced its own 10-point plan to tackle illegal imports.


  37.  The UK has a long history of restrictions on the import of meat and other products of animal origin for personal consumption. The basic principle was that no personal imports of meat would be permitted unless they weighed less than 1.0kg and were fully cooked in a hermetically sealed container, thus minimising risk of importing disease. When EU rules were introduced with the Single Market limited personal imports of meat and animal products were permitted from non-EU countries. The EU rules are imprecise and difficult to apply consistently and the UK opted to maintain its existing limits. The Secretary of State has raised our concerns about the shortcomings in the EU rules with Commissioner Byrne on a number of occasions. We understand that the Commission is likely to make proposals shortly. Similar clarification and tightening of the rules is being sought in respect of the exemption from plant health controls of some personal imports of plants and plant produce.

  38.  The Department will also continue to encourage the Commission to improve EU-wide intelligence sharing and enforcement.


  39.  In addition to general measures intended to improve understanding of risks, improve enforcement and increase public awareness, the Action Plan includes assessment of four practical measures, drawn largely from established practice in other countries.

Detector dogs

  40.  The Government will commence a pilot this summer on using dogs to detect and prevent illegal imports of meat and the Metropolitan Police are assisting us in this. Detailed plans are being finalised that will underpin the pilot. This will include identifying and putting in place any necessary infrastructure, operational guidelines for the handler and back-up teams, protocols with Customs dog units and other enforcement agencies to ensure the pilot complements their day-to-day operational requirements. Extra resources are being made available for this.

  41.  The Department was not able for practical reasons to take up the generous offer of the use of a trained dog from New Zealand. That was unfortunate, but the benefit is that we now have the advantage of developing our own training and handling expertise in close discussion with those who have practical experience.

X-ray equipment

  42.  Information is being gathered about the potential benefits of using x-ray equipment to detect and distinguish illicit organic material from any other legal products being imported. This includes considering with HM Customs what further use can be made of the x-ray scanning that already takes place of certain commercial consignments. We are also investigating x-ray equipment for scanning personal luggage, as is used in Australia. In doing so we must understand the operational requirements and constraints, including the role of the operators of the equipment to make judgements about the screen images, and the practical implications for the operation of airports and ports of then opening suspect containers or luggage. There is a practical balance that must be reached between detection procedures and the commercial operation of our ports and airports, including the world's busiest airport.

Amnesty bins

  43.  We are considering the possibility of a pilot scheme for amnesty bins in conjunction with the detector dog pilot study. There are a range of issues to be considered including responsibility for operating and maintaining the bins, their misuse for discarding drugs or other prohibited material or equipment, health and safety, siting, nuisance, safe disposal and liaison between enforcement agencies.

Landing cards

  44.  Only non-European nationals are required to complete a landing card. Implementing changes to the wording on the card would be a matter for the Home Office. We are in discussion with the Home Office and other Departments about what sort of changes might be possible. In its co-ordinating role DEFRA is gathering information on practices in other countries.


  45.  DARD is equally committed to taking effective measures to prevent the introduction of disease to Northern Ireland from personal imports. The challenges it faces are, however, different to DEFRA's as Northern Ireland has a greatly reduced direct threat from Third country imports, particularly in relation to air traffic. The principal threat is from secondary imports from travellers through transiting Great Britain and across the land border with the Republic of Ireland. The latter presents particular difficulties as free movement between Member States means no effective border controls exist to prevent the import of illegal products. In this regard DARD will be pursuing a common strategy with the ROI authorities through the North-South Working Groups to adopt an all Ireland strategy on the issue. DARD will, naturally, critically examine the initiatives being developed by DEFRA and the outcomes of the EFRA Select Committee and adopt them where applicable to our own particular circumstances. Accordingly it is felt inappropriate for DARD to be involved in this Select Committee on tackling illegal imports.


  44.  The Government's Action Plan for reducing risks of exotic disease linked to third country imports of animal products, plants and plant products:

    —  takes account of views of stakeholders and expert advice and is being taken forward in close co-operation with stakeholders

    —  seeks evidence base for proportionate checks and controls through identifying hazards and critical control points

    —  will inform decisions on the volume and nature of controls that will have greatest effect on reducing disease risk

    —  recognises the practical and commercial needs of traders and port and airport operators

    —  forms part of a wider range of measures, including bio-security on farms and the Food Standards Agency's ten point plan to tighten controls on foodstuffs of non-animal origin

    —  includes measures, such as publicity and pilot studies, carried out in parallel with the risk assessment

    —  cross-cuts Government Departments and Agencies.

27 May 2002

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