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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome to representatives of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. I should just explain to you you are our first witnesses in this short but important inquiry into illegal meat imports. We are very grateful that you have agreed to come. Perhaps you could introduce everybody, for the record.

  (Mr Jukes) First of all, thank you for inviting us to be the first witnesses to this Select Committee. We have, I think, some interesting things to tell you about. On my left is Mr Shaheen Zar, who is a Team Leader in Food Safety in a London Borough and shortly to be seconded as head of the diversity branch of the Food Standards Agency. On my immediate right is Brendan Brockway, Port Health Manager, with experience of over 29 years in port health work, and currently 12 years of experience in managing a specific service in the south of England. On my far right is Jenny Morris, my principal Policy Officer, who deals with food safety issues at the Chartered Institute. If I may, Chairman, just give a very brief introduction as to some of the key issues that we see, I hope that would be helpful. I have here for the Committee's edification a collection—almost a montage—of articles which have appeared in our weekly newspaper Environmental Health News over the past 12 months and, with it, a series of photographs which indicate illegal movements and shipments of so-called bush meat and other types of material. I would like to present that to the Committee, if I may. Secondly, Chairman, just for information there are copies here of our annual review, which is about what the Chartered Institute does and how we are organised. I would like to make the point, Chairman, that airports and seaports are different inasmuch that airports are dealing with a matter of minutes or hours in terms of the clearance of material, but with seaports we are talking about a matter of days. There is a matter of scale here when dealing with issues. I think the key points that we would like to address during the course of the next few minutes are that we would like to see a central control point and we would like to see an increase in resources. We believe that 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. The third point is that we would like to look at stop and search powers and we, as a profession, advocate stop as well as search. As to the appropriate penalties that should be put into legislation, which we do not believe are adequate at the present time, we would like to see a total ban on personal imports. We believe that is confusing to the traveller, to the enforcing bodies and to the consumer alike. We would like to see a national messaging system. We believe that our port health service is drastically under-resourced in terms of co-ordination and we wish to see that corrected. We would wish the risk assessments that are carried out to be extended to public health issues. At the moment they are being undertaken purely on animal health issues and we believe that public health should be equally as important, if not take prior importance. Finally, we would wish to see prior notification of all imports and a link to the quite extensive network of environmental health departments throughout the country—linking with the port health service.

  2. That is an impressive shopping list, Graham. Can we just talk about the scale of the problem. You have very kindly sent us some written evidence and I think in that evidence you talk about the amount of confiscation that had been made over a period of years. This whole issue is shrouded in suspicion and some mystery. What is your assessment about the volume of illegal imports?
  (Mr Jukes) I indicated, Chairman, in my opening remarks that we believe that this is the third-largest lucrative business other than narcotics and arms in this country. We believe that the small amount that is being detected and impounded is just the very tip of a huge iceberg, and my colleagues can give you evidence and can give you sight of cases of large amounts of imports in personal baggage as well as in container loads through the seaports illegally and then spread throughout the country.

  3. Can you put a figure on it? Have you got a best estimate per year for the amount of illegally imported meat?
  (Mr Jukes) A best estimate?
  (Mr Brockway) Certainly in relation to container shipments, they go from personal imports inasmuch as somebody is resident in Malaya, comes back to the UK and will introduce personal products that are non-compliant in that container load that would otherwise move back to their house. We move from that to the situation where you get three 40-foot containers which are described maybe as "rice sticks" but which contain umpteen different products of animal origin that are non-compliant. So you have both ends of the spectrum there, really. Quite clearly, if you are looking at container loads with personal imports and you are actually having to empty out the container to find those, it is very intensive. So last year, certainly I do know of a report that was finding personal imports regularly in container shipments and, obviously, non-compliant in products which are described as "vegetable" or described, as I say, as "rice sticks" that are not that at all.

  4. There is a curious question here, is there not? What you are saying to us is "Yes, we are identifying and discovering caches" and, secondly, there is a general perception that there is a real problem here, but on the face of it you are not able to give us any figures. Who would be able to give us an assessment about the scale of the problem?
  (Mr Jukes) I think that is very difficult. Because it is an illegal trade one can only pick up those that one catches. I do not know.
  (Mr Zar) There is some evidence just in that in Central and Western Africa between three and five million tonnes of bush meat is produced. Not all of that comes to us, some of it goes to the USA as well, but that is an indication just out of Central and Western Africa—three to five million tonnes of bush meat.

  5. Is bush meat the biggest problem?
  (Mr Zar) Bush meat is a problem because it has got both animal health and public health significance. It is not produced in an ideal environment.

  6. I just wonder if it were the case that there were more resources, as you are advocating, presumably there would be more discoveries and disclosures because greater policing, as it were, will reveal greater evidence?
  (Mr Jukes) Yes, Chairman. I think if you turn to the back of the dossier, these are the figures from the London Port Health Authority (City Airport) just for this month. We are talking about a few kilograms from just a few flights. If you multiply that up, in Heathrow there are 64 million passengers each year and if you then try and segment that into the countries that are most prominent in terms of this particular trade, I think we can start to gross it up, but we have not done those figures.

  7. Would you like to have a go at it?
  (Mr Jukes) If you would like to invite us to do so we would be very happy to do so. We will supplement our evidence.

Mr Martlew

  8. I have a follow-up on that. The flights that are chosen, are they chosen at random or do you actually choose them from countries that suspected meat is coming in from?
  (Mr Jukes) They were chosen, as I understand it, from countries that they suspect—

  9. So it would not be right to multiply the number of flights by the amount of meat, because these were suspected flights. It is like if you are looking for drugs you might pick on a flight from Jamaica, as opposed to the Isle of Man.
  (Mr Jukes) It is difficult to make simplistic arithmetic conclusions, which is the point we are making, but I would point out also that many of the European airports are being used as staging posts. So one would not necessarily look at a flight from Schipol, for example, and say "Yes, we will target that" whereas there could be third parties going through Schipol Airport and other European countries.

Mr Drew

  10. This is a totally naive question, but I am still intrigued as to why people smuggle meat. I understand why people smuggle drugs, I understand why people smuggle people, but the ability to make money on this sort of thing is fairly limited. Please dis-abuse us. There is big money to be made?
  (Mr Jukes) 1 billion worth of trade illegally, is the estimate just on bush meat per year.

  11. So people in this country have very exotic tastes that I have never come across?
  (Mr Jukes) There is a network in this country of distribution, and you very rarely see this type of material on sale. It is done, we believe, in a covert and underground manner.

  12. No wonder I am a vegetarian. Can I go on to look at some of the questions that I wanted to ask. Can you give us an indication of which agencies are operating in this area alongside yours? You are the local government front. Who else is working at the ports?
  (Mr Jukes) If I can just correct you, we are not the local government front, we are the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

  13. But you work with local authorities.
  (Mr Jukes) Our members are environmental health officers that are employed by the Food Standards Agency, by the Port Health Authorities, by local government.

  14. It would be useful to get a picture of who is there doing what.
  (Mr Zar) First of all, to answer your previous question. A small monkey in this country is retailed at 350, which can be bought back in Africa, probably, for as little as 15. That is the mark-up which we are talking about.

  15. Who is there at the ports doing the work of enforcing these controls?
  (Mr Zar) The Port Health Authorities, there is local government environmental health officers when it comes inland.
  (Mr Jukes) There is the Food Standards Agency who have overall responsibility for food safety. There are the Port Health Authorities, there is DEFRA, who are in overall control and who produce the latest legislation, and there are other bodies. I will ask Brendan to come in on this.
  (Mr Brockway) Perhaps I could just highlight the situation as it stands today. You have got border inspection posts around the UK and they are approved by the EC. The border inspection posts act to control meat products from third countries, a very draconian regime which is audited by the EC Commission and, also, monitored by DEFRA. In addition to that, the Food Standards Agency are to one side to give advice. As far as products coming in of a vegetable origin from a third country are concerned, there is a very limited checking mechanism in place. Under the food regulations no prior notification is needed before you bring a product in, as opposed to products of animal origin where you need to have prior notification, and there is 100 per cent document check, 100 per cent identity check and a physical check that is based upon a risk assessment as determined by the EC. Quite clearly, that is a draconian checking regime. On the other hand, in relation to vegetable products coming in, there is virtually nothing—probably in the region of about 3 per cent of products are checked.

  16. Are you saying that if you claim you are bringing in vegetable products but you are actually smuggling meat, in fact, that is an important route by which this stuff gets in?
  (Mr Brockway) The other problem is, if you go back to 30 or 40 years ago, products moved around seaports and airports and you could see them, today they are all in containers: in seaports they are in steel boxes, in airports they are in aluminium containers. You do not actually see them. So something goes to Schipol, it is moved across to London or Southampton and it comes in.

  17. Again, following that up, this is what you mean by materials being brought in for personal use. That is the main route, rather than people having it in their handbags, or whatever, and coming through various different airports or ports. I think you can get an understanding of this breakdown between what I take to be fairly organised container-based trafficking as against people who may be doing it on an organised basis but doing it at a personal level.
  (Mrs Morris) A number of checks are made at airports, particularly targeting personal baggage. Certainly, at Gatwick Airport last year, there were 20 operations carried out and they found over two tonnes of products. We were given an example, also, of a seizure that happened at Heathrow which involved one family. Each member of that family had a bag. They were allowed 25 kilos. When they actually opened them they found in each of those bags 25 kilos of illegal, non-conforming meat and no clothing or anything of that sort. So a number of checks that have been carried out have shown substantial amounts of illegal meat coming in in personal baggage. There is also, obviously, the meat that is coming in through containers, but the amount that is being found in personal baggage does not appear to be just for personal consumption; it does appear to be an organised network in many cases.
  (Mr Zar) There is information that there are organised courier services where people are paid as little as 30 per trip. It is also estimated that 90 per cent of the passengers from those countries actually carry illegal meat. There were checks made at Heathrow on three consecutive Sundays, and on the fourth Sunday there was not any meat. So there is intelligence which travels back there. One of the people at Heathrow travelled to Accra Airport in Ghana and actually saw officials stuffing the suitcases for the passengers because they get so much of the stuff coming in.

  18. A final point from me. We have talked mainly about the points of entry such as Heathrow, Gatwick and the larger container ports. What about what happens out in the sticks? Not a lot of people know this but I have got a port and my understanding is that when a ship comes in the environmental health officer occasionally will come down, will certainly have Customs and Excise and so on, but they have to travel to the ship. What is the sort of policy area outside of the main points of entry? Is that sufficient? Surely it is no good just setting down the big points of entry if you have got these other ones.
  (Mr Brockway) I think there are two points there, really. Customs & Excise have, generally speaking, been drawn away from the ports because the computer has taken over, largely, monitoring and they do revenue checks as necessary, but the physical presence of Customs has actually been drawn back from the seaports. In relation to non-compliant products such as meat coming in in vegetable containers, as I say, there is no prior notification needed when a third country vegetable container comes into your port. So the Environmental Health Officer covering your area would not know that anyway.

  19. Is that, do you think, another important source by which illegal meat products can come into this country, or is it just negligible because you can get it through Heathrow anyway?
  (Mr Brockway) It is the easiest route to bring it in because, as I say, you do not need prior notification.


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