The Observer 8 May 2005 http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1479083,00.html
The illegal meat trade that can bring a deadly virus to our high streets
As smuggling of animal carcasses into Britain booms, Jamie Doward reports on the government's fight to avert a nightmare scenario in which h Ebola finds its way into our food chain
Dr Yunes Teinaz is a dead man walking, at least that's what his enemies say. Teinaz, a big man with a big mouth, has a £100,000 bounty on his head thanks to his outspoken attacks on criminal gangs.
But the gangs who Teinaz, Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, an adviser to the Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre, has fallen foul of are not involved in prostitution, drugs or guns: they sell meat. Illegally.
The general public, used to its villains portrayed Hollywood style, may find it hard to believe that the illegal meat trade is now the third largest illegal trade in the UK, one worth an estimated £1 billion a year according to Teinaz in a speech given to the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.
And yet few people are aware of the burgeoning black market in illegal meat. Fewer still of the grave threat it poses to the nation's health. But Teinaz, who received his death threat for helping to prosecute a gang involved in 'Smokies' -sheep carcasses treated with a blow torch to give it a smoked texture and sold illegally to African communities who consider it a delicacy. Teinaz's boss was also offered £ 20 000 to sack him. The death threat has never been lifted.
'Illegal, infected meat can kill,' Teinaz says, referring to the ecoli and BSE outbreaks in the UK which claimed scores of lives. 'The problem is increasing across the whole country, but many local authorities lack the resources and the expertise to deal with it.'
That the problem exists, though, no council denies. Earlier this month Hackney council incinerated 10 tones of illegally imported cattle feet destined for a market in East London. The feet, imported from France, did not comply with food safety standards and had started to decay. In the last 12 months alone Hackney council has seized more than 60 tones of illegal meat and closed 20 takeaways, stores and restaurants. But it is likely that even Hackney, one of the country's more proactive boroughs in combating the illegal meat trade, is only scratching the surface. Many local authorities show little enthusiasm for devoting resources to prosecuting those involved in the illegal trade. A new survey by the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH) finds that nearly 90 per cent of environmental officers said insufficient resources and staffing levels meant they were not able to take a proactive approach to dealing with the problem.
Penalties for those who do end up in court are considered soft by officials. In magistrates court; smugglers face a maximum £20,000 fine or six months in jail.
'In one of the biggest cases I was involved with, in which we had seized 250 rotten sheep carcasses and 100 sheep heads, the criminals ended up with a £250 fine and 140 hours of community service. I got my car clamped on the same day and it cost me nearly as much,' Teinaz said.
The criminal gangs, often comprised of Muslim middle men, according to Teinaz, sell much of their produce on to butchers who pass themselves off as 'halal' -meaning the meat has been killed in accordance with strict Islamic guidelines. The Muslim community is targeted because it consumes a significant proportion of all red meat eaten in Britain, but, often the halal branded produce which finds its way into the increasing number of schools and hospitals which cater for Muslim diets, is nothing of the sort. A lot also finds its way into kebab shops or the takeaway trade. Cattle feet, which were meant for the pet food industry and haven't been vetted for human consumption, get channelled to ethnic groups which
consider them a delicacy. A small proportion, around three per cent of all produce seized by Customs, is bush meat such as giraffe or monkey, which is smuggled in from Africa and sold as aphrodisiacs or for use in black magic rituals. Customs have also been plagued by tones of illegally imported canned meat entering the UK from China, a country which doesn't meet a number of hygiene requirements.
Given the multifaceted nature of the illegal meat trade, and the little resources devoted to stamping it out, gauging its true scale is difficult. 'The big problem is we don't know how much of a problem it is,' admits Jenny Morris, policy officer with the CIEH.
Even the National Audit Office, not an agency known for admitting its limitations, acknowledges in a recent report into the illegal trade: 'There is a high degree of uncertainty over the risks posed by illegal imports in air and sea freight.'
The Veterinary Laboratories Agency estimates that as much as 29,000 tones off illegal meat enter the UK from outside the EU every year. Some is carried in hand luggage; some in the post. Much is smuggled in the 140 million tones of freight that pass through Britain's 42 seaports and 24 airports every year. Since the expansion of the EU, environmental health officers have detected a rise in the amount of illegal meat entering the UK from Eastern Europe and Russia. Gangs have become increasingly sophisticated in packaging the produce to make it look as if it comes from within the UK. If they get rumbled they are adept at creating new packaging seemingly over night.
Following the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, which cost the UK £8 billion and was the result, many experts believe, of infected pork being smuggled into the UK where it found its way into the animal food chain, the government promised to get tough on the illegal meat trade.
As a result, responsibility for tackling the problem was transferred to Customs and Excise in 2003. The agency was given an annual budget of £7 million, 100 extra staff and 10 sniffer dogs. The number of seizures of illegally imported meat double to almost 16,000 in the first year of operation.
But new figures from Customs & Excise, to be published soon as part of its annual review of the illegal meat trade, suggests that only now, as more resources are devoted to the problem, is its true scale starting to come to light.
Among the 15 countries identified by Customs & Excise as the biggest exporters of illegal meat to the UK, seizures have risen by almost 20 per cent in under a year. In the financial year 2003 to 2004 the number of seizures by Customs officers totaled 9,616. The figure rose to 11,388 in the 11 months leading up to March 2005.
But critics say there is still a lack of a coordinated response to the problem from government, local authorities, police forces and the Food Standards Agency. They express fears that, if the meat can be smuggled through customs, there is little then to prevent it from entering the food chain. They point to the infamous case of the Rotherham-based gang, convicted in 2000 of diverting meat earmarked for the pet food market to the human food chain, as proof of how fragile the system is if it's left to the likes of trading standards or environmental health teams to investigate on their own.
'There have to be more resources put into addressing this issue,' said Helen Ferrier, a food science adviser at the National Farmers' Union. 'We need a system where the deterrents are stringent enough.'
But a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said much had been done to combat the problem in the last two years.
'There are controls in place,' the spokesman said. 'We've done a lot in training up local authorities to become aware of the problem of illegal meat,' the spokesman added.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has also worked with local ethnic communities to warn them of the potential catastrophes that could result from illegal meat entering the food chain. A campaign which warns of the health threats that comes from eating illegally imported meat that hasn't been vetted by food experts, has also had an effect.
But the threat persists. The VLA acknowledges in its own report: 'There is a low but constant risk of infection to livestock from illegal imports of animal products. In common with other countries, Defra recognises that totally eliminating the risk of infection is unrealistic.'
The nightmare scenario is not that a new strain of salmonella or ecoli will slip into the food chain through the illegal meat trade -one that would still have grave consequences for the meat industry- but that something far worse will occur.
Morris said: 'The scary one is the Ebola virus from bushmeat. There is some information that suggests people in this country have contracted the disease from primates. We know monkeys have been imported here illegally. What we don't know is: what is the likelihood of that disease being carried into this country on the animals?'
Given the thriving state of the underground trade in illegal meat, it is question the UK must pray it never has to answer.
Virus fear over smuggled bushmeat Observer May 8 2005
Diseases that pose a threat to humans, such as Ebola, may be entering UK through the illegal food tradeJamie Doward, social affairs editor
Sunday May 8, 2005
Seizures of illegal meat smuggled into the UK from 'high-risk' countries where infectious animal diseases can pose a risk to human health have spiralled by almost 20 per cent, according to new figures. The revelation raises fresh concerns about the black market trade and comes as it emerges that the government has appointed a scientific task force to investigate the consequences if bush meat carrying viruses, including the deadly Ebola virus, were smuggled into the UK.
The decision by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the food watchdog, to conduct the first risk assessment of the threat to the UK from bush meat - such as antelope, giraffe or monkey, which makes up 3 per cent of the illegal trade - has been long overdue, according to experts.
'This assessment is about looking at the really nasty viruses and diseases and asking whether they can be transferred to humans,' said Jenny Morris, policy officer with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
'For some time, our concern has been that nobody has done a theoretical examination of the risks to public health. But if it could happen we need to know. The consequences would be enormous,' Morris added.
Figures to be published this month, as part of the HM Revenue & Customs' annual review into the illicit trade in smuggled produce, will show an 18.5 per cent rise in the number of seizures of illegal meat smuggled from the 15 countries that are classed as 'high risk' of animal-borne disease.
The figures show that customs officers carried out 11,388 seizures from the 15 'high risk' exporter countries of illegal meat in the 11 months to March. This compares with 9,616 seizures the year before, and may be a sign that customs is becoming more successful in the war on illegal meat smuggling.
'Customs takes the detection of illegal meat imports seriously. By making the most of technology, using our resources flexibly and identifying areas most at risk, we are becoming increasingly successful in tackling smugglers involved in illegal meat imports,' a spokeswoman said.
Seizures from Nigeria - the biggest exporter of illegal meat outside the European Union - increased from 1,463 to 1,965 while those from Bangladesh almost doubled, from 736 to 1,361.
But the figures will also raise concerns that the true scale of the illegal meat trade is only starting to become apparent as more resources are devoted to tackling it. 'There are an awful lot of unknowns out there,' Morris said.
'There is good evidence that there is a considerable problem in various parts of the country, and in these areas it is getting worse.'
Bush meat is usually smuggled in from western Africa, and is sold for hefty prices to people who consider it a delicacy.
But there is now a growing concern about the threat bush meat poses to human health.
A recent government briefing paper on the bush meat trade suggested that 'zoonoses' - animal diseases that pose a threat to human health - are now 'among the most important public health threats facing humanity'.
While the likelihood of viruses such as Ebola entering the United Kingdom via illegally smuggled meat is considered an extremely remote 'nightmare scenario', the government now believes further research needs to be done into the threat.
'However, recognising the continuing concerns about this trade, it has recently commissioned a formal review of the microbiological hazards that could be associated with illegal imports of meat, to determine whether any additional advice is required,' an FSA spokesman said.
Research suggests Ebola, which has no vaccine or known cure and causes 90 per cent of its victims to bleed to death, can be caught by eating meat from infected apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas.