Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Seventh Report


The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:



The illegal importation of meat into the United Kingdom is the most likely cause of the outbreaks of classical swine fever in 2000 and foot and mouth in 2001. Such imports may also have implications for human health. Therefore in this Report we welcome the Government's Action Plan for addressing the problem, although it should have been developed sooner. We make a number of recommendations in relation to the Action Plan, and we focus on five main areas. We believe that the Government should consider providing additional powers to port health authority officers. We recommend that the Government seek to end the personal allowance for bringing meat into this country. We urge it to improve publicity about the problem both at airports and on board aircraft. We seek improved co-ordination between the various agencies concerned. And we conclude that resources available to deal with the problem are not sufficient, and seek increases.


  1. Concern about the import of illegal meat and animal products has grown following the outbreaks in the United Kingdom of classical swine fever in 2000 and of foot and mouth disease in 2001. In March 2001, Rt Hon Nick Brown MP, then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, told the House that:

"The Ministry is taking a hard look at the importation of meat for personal use in our review of all the possible causes of the current outbreak [of foot and mouth disease]. We were already considering the issue in the context of the classical swine fever outbreak."[1]

Subsequent inquiries into the origins of those diseases concluded that "the genome of the [classical swine fever] virus isolated from 15 of the premises showed that these outbreaks were caused by the same virus, which had not been previously isolated in the European Union";[2] and that "the source of the virus for the 2001 [foot and mouth disease] epidemic was most probably infected or contaminated meat or meat products but it is unlikely that the origin of this material or the route by which it entered the United Kingdom and reached Burnside Farm [the first infected premise] will ever be identified".[3]

2. Recent widespread media coverage of "suitcases, some leaking blood", and illegal meat imports including "bush rat, bat, monkey, antelope, chicken and pork",[4] coupled with commitments made in the last Parliament have prompted the Government to introduce a number of measures to tackle the problem of illegal meat. It launched an Illegal Imports Action Plan on 28 March 2002.[5]


3. Following the announcement of the Government's Action Plan, the Committee agreed to appoint a Sub-committee to examine:

"the adequacy of the Government's Action Plan, published on 28 March 2002, intended to address concerns about the risk of disease from meat and other food products illegally smuggled into the United Kingdom. In particular it will make use of examples of policies and practices adopted by other countries in assessing the Action Plan".[6]

We received written submissions from seventeen interested parties and took oral evidence on two occasions, from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the National Farmers' Union, the Association of Port Health Authorities and The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In addition we visited Heathrow Airport, where we met local port health officials and HM Customs and Excise officers. We are grateful to all those who helped us in any way during our inquiry.

4. In this brief Report, we begin by commenting on the scale of the problem. We then consider the initial reaction to the Government's Illegal Imports Action Plan and comment on different aspects of the Plan. Finally we comment on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's co-ordinating role and on the review that the Government is currently undertaking of the roles, structure and financing of the various agencies involved in tackling illegal meat imports.[7]

5. We also take note of the report of the Royal Society inquiry into Infectious diseases in livestock, which was published on 16 July 2002.[8] In part the report addresses the problem of illegal meat imports, and we welcome its observations, many of which chime with our own. In particular, we note its concern that "as a result of globalisation, the risk of invasion by exotic (ie. non-endemic) animal diseases has increased", and its conclusion that "the United Kingdom, and the European union, should seek to retain 'disease-free' status with respect to foot and mouth disease and the other most serious infectious diseases".[9]


6. The very fact that illegal meat imports are illegal means that it is impossible to establish exactly the size of the problem.[10] What is clear is that many countries are faced by this problem. On a recent visit to New Zealand the Select Committee was apprised of the difficulties that it has in protecting itself from illegal imports. Both the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Association of Port Health Authorities were able to provide us with some data and estimates that, at least, enable an indication of the scale of the problem in the United Kingdom:

  • between three and five million tonnes of bush meat is produced in Central and Western Africa annually;[11]
  • "after narcotics and arms, the trade in unfit and illegal meat is the third most lucrative illegal enterprise in this country, netting over £1 billion worth of trade illegally";[12]
  • flights at Gatwick Airport were targeted in thirty special operations between 31 March 2001 and 30 March 2002 - a total of 257 passengers were detected carrying illegal meat and there was at least one instance of importing illegal meat on each of the thirty occasions;[13]
  • whilst we were at Heathrow we were told of three operations in which a total of 681 kilogrammes of illegal meat imports were detected in personal baggage; and
  • the Port of London Port Health Authority told us that he did not believe that "the problem has diminished at all in London in the last year".[14]

Table 1: Illegal Meat Imports - Seizures Reported by the Association of Port

Health Authorities[15]


No. of Detections



Time period

Gatwick Airport — Cargo

Gatwick Airport — Passenger Baggage

(in the airport terminal)

Heathrow Airport

Manchester Airport (cargo centre)



Felixstowe Border Inspection Post

London City Airport

London City Airport


















Since 1/1/02

30/2/01- 30/3/02

05/01- 06/02




01/01- 05/02




*Figures prepared 1 July 2002

Figures include commercial imports - especially those for Heathrow, Manchester and Felixstowe.

7. There are several different reasons why a consignment of imported meat is deemed to be illegal, and different legislation applies in different cases. There are also a number of routes by which the illegal import can enter the country. All of the following examples would count as an illegal meat import:

  • personal imports exceeding the limits laid down for such imports (an individual from a non-European Union country can carry into the United Kingdom one kilogramme of cooked meat in a sealed container, or one kilogramme of fish);[16]
  • any personal import of bush meat (ie. wild meat), on a semi-commercial basis;[17]
  • 'legal' imports that fail health checks;
  • imports originating from unapproved establishments;
  • incorrectly declared consignments, i.e. commercial smuggling;[18]
  • imports that are labelled as containing vegetable products or plants but which contain illegal shipments of meat; and
  • "food imports of an exotic nature in particular in contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)".[19]

1   HC Deb, 8 March 2001, col 418. Back

2   MAFF, Animal Health 2000: the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer, Chapter B1:GB Disease Reporting, see: Back

3   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Origin of the UK Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic in 2001, June 2002; see  Back

4   Meat smugglers target UK airports, Environmental Health News, 25 January 2002. Back

5   Illegal Imports: Government Action Plan published, DEFRA News Release 127/02, 28 March 2002; see p.21. Back

6   Press Notice No. 25, Session 1999, 18 April 2002, Back

7   Evidence taken on 2 July 2002, Q.220. Back

8   See Infectious diseases in livestock, The Royal Society, 22 July 2002; see Back

9   Infectious diseases in livestock, p.vii. Back

10   Evidence taken on 18 June 2002, Q.4 and Q.88. Back

11   Evidence taken on 18 June 2002, Q.4 and Q.10. Back

12   Evidence taken on 18 June 2002, Q.1. Back

13   Evidence taken on 2 July 2002, Q.107, and QQ.109-110. Back

14   Evidence taken on 2 July 2002, Q.105. Back

15   Derived from information provided by Association of Port Health Authorities. Back

16   Personal limits on the importation of food from non-European union states are currently 1.0 kg of meat cooked in a hermetically sealed container; 1.0 kg of fish; 1.0 kg of milk powder (from specified countries only); 2.0 kg of fruit/raw vegetables; 1 bouquet of cut flowers; 5 retail packets of seeds; 2.0 kg of bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes; and 5 other plants (from certain countries); see the Memorandum submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, [F14], para 13. Back

17   Evidence taken on 18 June 2002, QQ.10-11. Back

18   Evidence taken on 18 June 2002, Q.3. Back

19   Memorandum submitted by the Food Standards Agency, [F4], para 13. Back

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