HL Deb 18 March 2003 vol 646 cc125-7

Lord Geraint asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the estimated tonnage of illegal meat imported into this country last year and what was the corresponding figure for 1992.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the forthcoming risk assessment will give a broad estimate of the total weight of meat illegally imported into the United Kingdom on average each year. It is due to be published in the next few weeks, following the completion of final quality assurance and peer review processes. No earlier estimates are available.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm or deny that the £1 billion = worth of illegal meat entering this country annually contains human flesh?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not recognise the figure of £1 billion. Allegations have been made that some meat has contained human flesh, but those are matters for the police rather than Customs and Excise or our own inspectors. There is no proof that such imports have been made. Although there are serious problems related to the meat trade, ones that the Government are attempting to address, the allegations are probably something of a diversion from the main problem.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am sorry that no figures can be made available to the House and hope that that will be quickly remedied. Would it be possible for the Government to render illegal the importation of meat from countries which allow the use of banned substances that may not be used in this country? Will the Government address this issue since obviously it has huge implications for UK farming?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, cases involving poultry imports have recently received wide publicity. Those imports are illegal and such meat should not be brought into this country. Of course differing treatment regimes apply in different countries and are still allowed under trade agreements. However, the recent high-profile issues relating to certain imported poultry meat are illegal and that meat should never have been allowed to come into this country.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that most illegally imported meat finds its way into the rather more dubious take-away and fast food outlets? What efforts are being made by his department and other departments to prevent this criminal trade, given the impact it may have on human and animal health? We could face very serious consequences.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is obviously more familiar with dodgy fast food and take-away outlets than I. I am not aware that those outlets necessarily provide the main route into livestock or public health problems. A number of potential routes exist. However, when the risk assessment comes to be published, I think it will show that although there is a significant problem with regard to the importation of illegal meat, only a relatively small proportion of that meat is likely to be diseased, and again only a small proportion of that is likely to contaminate livestock or pose a threat to human health. The problems with regard to monitoring, control and enforcement therefore lie with identifying all routes. But it is a difficult job to pick out what may pose an actual threat to human or animal health.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House about the partnership work presently being undertaken between the various departments concerned to deal with the importation of illegal meat? How does he see those partnerships moving forward and progressing in the future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, one of the main problems identified in this area was the fact that a multiplicity of agencies have been involved in the control of meat and other food imports. The Cabinet Office undertook a major study, from which the main recommendation made was that Customs and Excise should take over the illegal importation enforcement side, thus dealing with meat smuggling as a whole. The handover to Customs and Excise should take place sometime in April.

In addition, primary control of the legal trade in meat imports is currently the responsibility of local authorities working under the direction of the Food Standards Agency, although other bodies are also involved. A further recommendation has been made that co-ordination should be stepped up and, if necessary, we should consider the creation of a new agency to deliver the improvements being sought.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, can the Minister shed any more light on the trade in so-called bushmeat? What are the Government doing in terms of establishing relations with those countries supplying such meat to this country?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, what is generally known as bushmeat accounts for only a relatively small proportion of the total trade. Certainly as regards seizures of illegally imported meat, it accounts for under 2.5 per cent of those seizures. Furthermore, only a very small proportion of bushmeat derives from endangered species. The main enforcement arm internationally is CITES, the relevant convention in relation to international trade in endangered species. Under that convention, we have stepped up inspectorate controls and checking procedures at the points of origin, in particular at the most likely points, largely in Africa.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how his dogs are doing? Have they caught anyone smuggling meat? Is he training any more dogs for this purpose?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the dogs are fine. Both of them are getting on very well. The pilot study will finish in a month or two, at which point Customs and Excise will take over and assess whether or not to extend the experiment. The dogs have indeed found a significant number of people smuggling illegal meat. That meat has been confiscated as a result of the efforts of these two stalwart dogs.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, how many seizures were made last year? How many prosecutions were made? What is the heaviest fine that can be imposed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the highest fine that can be imposed is £5,000. Some 2,900 people were stopped and searched and approximately 2,000 seizures—amounting to 27,000 kilogrammes of illegal meat—were made. Most of the seizures were made in ports and airports through the passenger trade, although some were made through commercial channels when checks were carried out—as they are fairly efficiently—on container loads. Local authorities carry out prosecutions and, as far as I am aware, there were three last year.

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