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Fighting Illegal Imports to Beat Disease Threat

The threat of exotic animal diseases entering a country has led to a raft of legislation from most authorities preventing the illegal import of animal products, writes TheFishSite senior editor, Chris Harris.

In the UK, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 - that was believed to have been caused by untreated waste feed that happened to be contaminated - led to a strict tightening of import controls.

The consensus is that the FMD virus came from infected or contaminated meat that was part of the garbage being fed to pigs at Burnside Farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall in the north of England.

The garbage had not been properly heat-sterilised and the virus had been allowed to infect the pigs.

Because FMD virus was not present in the UK beforehand and given the import restrictions for meat from countries known to harbour FMD, it is likely that the infected meat had been illegally imported to the UK.

Such imports are likely to be for the catering industry and a total ban on feeding of catering waste containing meat or meat products was introduced early in the epidemic.

But the British government made sure that measures to prevent illegal meat imports were strengthened and these measures had repercussions around the world with other country authorities also tightening their regulations - in particular with zero tolerance measures in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The clamp down in the UK saw the number of seizures of products of animal origin at ports and airports last year fall by 29 per cent on the 2006/7 figures.

However, 24,956 seizures were still reported, according to the Annual Review of Controls on Imports of Animal Products: April 2007-March 2008, released last month.

"This is reflected in the reduction in the number and weight of seizures by HMRC from the levels achieved in the last two years, when HMRC significantly enhanced their deployments to tackle the emerging threat of AI, as outbreaks were reported in countries with significant traffic to the UK," the report says.

"Whilst HMRC continue to target the routes that pose the greatest animal disease risk, they have scaled back these deployments to the original planned levels prior to the additional deployments in 2005/06 and 2006/07.

"Most seizures continue to be less than 20kg, with average weights as well as numbers falling from many regions. Whilst seizures follow the typical pattern of small family groups, business people and students travelling to the UK for the first time, passengers on high risk flights are increasingly found to be compliant with the POAO regulations. Anecdotal feedback suggests that increased awareness of the regulations and tightened air security measures such as baggage restrictions are having a positive effect on discouraging illegal imports."

Products of Animal Origin seizures by region (2007-2008)


Number of times Products of Animal Origin seized, including weight and volume, by product (2006-2008)

The risk of disease is related to the possibility that animals may consume infectious material in illegal imports. Very small amounts of infectious material may cause disease and are likely to form only a very small proportion of any illegal import.

However, the Government says that there is very little chance of finding infected material by testing samples.

Discovering whether any individual seizure is infected is unlikely to contribute significantly to the way that the restrictions relating to imports are enforced.

"Defra continues to monitor the occurrence of major animal disease outbreaks worldwide as an early warning to assess the risk these events may pose to the UK, and help inform our delivery partners' enforcement activities," the report says.

And the government Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health, Jeff Rooker, said: "The control of imports of animal products remains a major concern for the Government as we fully appreciate the impact that disease outbreaks can have on rural communities and businesses and, in trying to protect animal health, we know how important it is to take a variety of measures both at the border and inland."

In 2007/08 Defra conducted 37 preliminary outbreak assessments on outbreaks of diseases such as African Horse Sickness, African Swine Fever, Bluetongue, Classical Swine Fever, Foot and Mouth Disease, H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (AI), Low Pathogenic AI, Lumpy Skin Disease, Newcastle Disease, Peste des Petits Ruminants, Rabies and Swine Vesicular Disease. On top of these two more detailed qualitative risk assessments were undertaken related to the evolving situation with regard to the outbreaks of H5N1 Highly Pathogenic AI around the world.

"Defra veterinary and policy officials continue to meet with HMRC colleagues to discuss changes in the global disease situation and help plan future enforcement activity," the report says.

The report adds that the British Government has continued to review the policy for financing the costs of exotic animal disease outbreaks. At present there are 100 trained inspectors, who also work with detector dogs.

The overriding objective of sharing animal health and welfare responsibilities between the industry and the Government is to achieve better management of animal disease risks so that the overall risks and costs are reduced.

This work has the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between industry and Government to the benefit of both.

"Through the sharing of responsibilities, industry will be able to take greater responsibility for its own decisions and will have greater ownership of the risks. In addition, responsibility sharing will provide opportunities for improved regulation and a reduction in the regulatory burden in future," the report says.

"Government will benefit from increased industry involvement in decision making, which should mean a greater ability to respond and deliver outcomes more effectively and efficiently."

Earlier this year, the agency covering the control of illegal imports was reorganised as numerous border control agencies were merged under the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

However, the controls of animal diseases as the borders is not restricted to just the UK. The control measures also call for co-operation between countries, in particular between countries in the EU.

"We continue to support all efforts to encourage closer co-operation between customs and veterinary authorities in other EU Member States. HMRC will seek opportunities to facilitate the exchange of intelligence and other risk information to detect illegal imports," says the report.

"Defra will continue to work at EU and international level to influence other EU Member States and non-EU countries and minimise the risk of introducing disease into the UK."

Later this year European Veterinary Week will have the theme of biosecurity at farm level and at the borders and the aim will be to:

  • Reduce the amount of illegal food brought into the EU by travellers arriving from countries outside the EU;
  • Increase awareness of the rules that are in place to restrict personal food imports;
  • Encourage people to change their behaviour so that they do not bring in illegal food products.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

August 2008

the Fish Site Editor

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