18 January 2002

Smuggled meat still a threat to nations health

By Mike Stones

ILLEGAL meat imports – blamed by many farmers for triggering the foot-and-mouth crisis – continue to enter the country almost one year after the start of the epidemic.

Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson has unveiled plans for a National Infection Control and Health Protection Agency intended to improve the prevention of human diseases and F&M. "One of the greatest challenges for public health services in developed countries like ours is the rapid identification of new or previously unknown infectious diseases," he said.

But the new organisation will be fatally flawed if it fails to focus on the threat to human and animal health from meat smuggled from places like Africa, claims an expert who supervises animal materials at Heathrow Airport. Clive Lawrance, managing director of Ciel Logistics, first voiced fears about illegal meat imports last year (News, Mar 23, 2001).

Smuggled meat and fish pose one of the greatest risks to human and animal health, he said this week. Mr Lawrance identifed at least five infectious diseases designated by the World Health Organisation that could arrive in Britain via smuggled meat or fish. They include anthrax, West Nile fever, ebola, human monkey pox and the plague.

"Smuggled meat and fish is a time-bomb. Since I first warned about the threat nothing of signifance has happened. Our import controls are so lax or non-existent, there is nothing to stop the foot-and-mouth virus arriving at Heathrow airport in someones suitcase tomorrow."

A DEFRA spokesman admitted: "It is impossible to search every bag from every non-EU destination. In an international market, we cannot stop every bit of disease. There is probably more that should be done to stop illegal meat coming in along with domestic controls and tighter EU enforcement. We are looking at different detection methods."

An NFU spokesman said the government urgently needed to improve import control procedures dramatically to prevent a rerun of F&M. The union is holding an Illegal Imports Summit on Tuesday (Jan 22), bringing farmers together for the first time to discuss the problem with organisations like the air and port authorities, Customs and Excise, the British Tourist Authority and the Food Standards Agency.

Out of Africa comes the risk of devastating human diseases linked to illegal meat and fish imports plus F&M, warns Clive Lawrance, managing director of Ciel Logistics based at Heathrow Airport. (Disease locations supplied by the World Health Organisation.)