By Isabel Davies

CUSTOMS AND EXCISE should consider introducing on-the spot fines to deter people from illegally importing meat, according to the National Audit Office.

The NAO has published a report which said that Customs had tightened border controls since it was given responsibility for enforcement in Apr 2003. But it added that officials and DEFRA should still take further action to prevent illegal imports.

The report pointed out that research showed there is a “low but constant” risk of infection to livestock from illegal imports of meat.

“The foot-and-mouth outbreak showed how important it is to prevent infected meat entering the country illegally,” said head of the NAO, John Bourn.

“Since taking over responsibility for controls over imports of animals products from outside the EU, Customs has improved our protection. My recommendations should help to tighten controls further.”

The report, Stopping Illegal Imports of Animal Products into Great Britain, said about 12,000t/yr of illegal meat is thought to enter Britain.

While only a very small amount of this is likely to be diseased the consequences of this getting into the animal food chain could be severe, it said, although it also pointed out,that totally eliminating this risk was unrealistic.

To improve the situation the NAO suggested prosecuting more cases, introducing on-the spot-fines for offenders and raising awareness of the rules among travellers.

Commenting on the report, NFU Scotland said there was no doubt that there had been improvements since Customs took over the responsibility for import controls.

98% UNDETECTED

But it pointed out that figures in the report seemed to suggest that 98% of illegal imports went undetected.

“We welcome the news that the number of seizures of illegal imports has doubled to nearly 15,000, but this is an indication of the size of the problem,” said vice president David Mitchell.

“Government should bear in mind that even a doubling of the 7m Customs” budget pales in comparison to the 8bn cost of foot-and-mouth.”

Michael Seals, the NFU”s food law spokesman, added: “More still needs to be done, particularly in strengthening and communicating deterrents.”

isabel.davies@rbi.co.uk