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Customs has moved quickly to tighten border controls against illegal imports of animal products from outside of the European Union, since taking over this enforcement role in April 2003. As a result, the number of seizures has more than doubled, Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today. He recommended that Customs and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) take further action to prevent and deter people from illegally importing meat and other products by building on existing campaigns to raise public awareness of the restrictions on imports both in Great Britain and abroad. In addition, Customs should prosecute more cases and should consider introducing on-the-spot-fines.

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Research shows that there is a low but constant risk of infection to livestock from illegal imports of animal products. It is estimated that around 12,000 tonnes of illegal meat and meat products may enter Great Britain each year but there is great uncertainty over the data. Only a very small amount is likely to be infected with disease. The economic consequences of infected material getting into the animal food chain could be severe if this were to result in a major disease outbreak. Totally eliminating the risk is, however, unrealistic.

Customs operates border controls on illegal imports of animal products according to an agreement with Defra which has overall responsibility for animal health. Customs has been provided with £4 million for its first year of operation in 2003-04, and £7 million a year thereafter. Customs’ controls over illegal imports of animal products compare well with other European Member States. Some other countries such as Australia and New Zealand spend significantly more on their controls because agricultural products account for a larger share of the economy and export trade than in Great Britain.

Risk assessments suggested that air passenger baggage is the most likely route by which infected products are brought into the country. Customs has focused its checks in this area and most seizures are from baggage. One way of reducing the amount of illegal imports is to ensure that passengers understand the rules on prohibited and restricted items. Research carried out for Customs and Defra showed that more people knew the rules that some food items are prohibited but awareness could be increased further. Customs and Defra have been working to promote awareness among passengers and the general public.

"The Foot and Mouth disease outbreak showed how important it is to prevent infected meat entering the country illegally. Since taking over responsibility for controls over imports of animal products from outside the EU, Customs has improved our protection. My recommendations should help to tighten controls further."

Sir John Bourn


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