26 July 2002

Ministers too slow to act on illegal meat imports

By FW reporters

FARMERS representatives had to coax ministers into taking steps to tighten up controls against illegal meat imports, a report from an influential group of MPs has claimed.

The environment, food and rural affairs select committee has criticised ministers for taking more than a year to publish their Action Plan to tackle the problem.

Illegal imports of infected meat are widely believed to have caused the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 and the swine fever outbreak of the previous year.

But the plan may never have been drawn up at all were it not for campaigning from farmers, said the committees report, Illegal Meat Imports, published on Tuesday (July 23).

This includes farmers weekly, which first brought attention to the issue by running a report describing how thousands of tonnes of illegal meat are smuggled into the country each year.

"We are concerned about the long delay between the problem being acknowledged by government – action was being considered in March 2001 – and substantive action being taken a year later," said the cross-party group of MPs.

"Indeed, it seems that without the prompting of and bringing together of interested parties by the National Farmers Union, the forum on illegal meats which agreed the Action Plan may never have come together."

But the group of MPs said they were generally impressed with the speed with which the government and stakeholders have since addressed the plan.

The plan sets out a series of measures designed to cut down on illegal imports of meat and plant products. These include new search powers for enforcement officers and plans to secure a ban on personal imports of meat products.

"The Action Plan is only a first step," said Paddy Tipping, chairman of the sub-committee which produced the report. "We believe that there is a lot more to be done as a matter of urgency."

NFU food standards chairman, Michael Seals, said: "It is very heartening that this committee of MPs agrees with us that more must be done to tackle the issue of illegal imports.

"We accept that some progress has been made, but we totally agree with the committees view that more is urgently needed."

John Kinnaird, NFU Scotland vice-president, said revelations this week that the Food Standards Agency in Scotland is investigating illegal imports of tinned pork products from China and the reports on last years foot-and-mouth outbreak pointed to the fact that government had to do more to control illegal imports.

"Foot-and-mouth and other diseases are still rife in other parts of the world. It is obvious to everyone that urgent action needs to be taken to control illegal imports. And the longer the government procrastinates, the longer we remain at risk of another disaster," he said. &#42