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
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
enterthere 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
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.