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Jamie Doward
the Illegal Meat Trade that can
Bring a Deadly Virus to our High Streets
The Observer
8 May 2005
as smuggling of animal carcasses into Britain booms, Jamie Doward reports on the government's fight to avert a nightmare scenario in which Ebola finds its way into our food chain

Dr Yunes Teinaz is a dead man walking. At least that is what his enemies say. Teinaz, a big man with a big mouth, has a £100,000 bounty on his head as a result of his outspoken attacks on criminal gangs.

The gangs who Teinaz, a chartered environmental health practitioner and 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.

Teinaz received the death threat three years ago after helping to prosecute a gang involved in the production of 'smokies' -- sheep carcasses blow-torched to give them a distinctive charred texture (in breach of food safety regulations) which are sold to Nigerian communities who consider it a delicacy. Teinaz's then boss was also offered £20,000 to sack him. The death threat has never been lifted.

The black-market trade is worth an estimated £1 billion a year, according to Teinaz, and it shows no signs of slowing down. New statistics, soon to be released by Customs and Excise, will show that seizures continue to increase. 'The problem of illegal meat smuggling is increasing, but many local authorities lack the resources and the expertise to deal with it', Teinaz said.

Councils do not deny the problem exists. Last week Hackney council in London incinerated 10 tonnes of illegally imported cattle feet destined for a market in East London. Like much of the illegal meat smuggled into the UK, the feet, imported from France, did not comply with food safety standards and had started to decay, posing a severe threat to human health.

But it is likely that even Hackney, one of the country's more active boroughs in combating the illegal meat trade, is only scratching the surface. Many local authorities show little enthusiasm for devoting resources to tackling the problem. A new survey by the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health finds nearly 90 per cent of environmental officers believe too few resources and too few staff stop them from seriously tackling the problem.

Penalties for those who end up in court are considered 'soft' by officials. In magistrates' courts, meat smugglers face a maximum £20,000 fine or six months in jail.

The gangs, often made up of Muslim middlemen, sell much of their produce to butchers who pass it off as 'halal' -- claiming 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.

Cattle feet, which were meant for the pet food industry and have not been vetted for human consumption, are also channelled to ethnic minority groups. A small proportion, around 3 per cent of all produce seized by customs, is 'bush meat' such as giraffe or monkey, which is smuggled from Africa and sold as aphrodisiacs or for use in black magic rituals.

A lot of illegal meat also finds its way into the takeaway trade. Customs has also been plagued by tonnes of illegally imported canned meat entering the UK from China, a country which does not meet a number of hygiene requirements.

Given the multifaceted nature of the illegal meat trade, 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 chartered institute. The Veterinary Laboratories Agency estimates that as much as 29,000 tonnes of illegal meat enters the UK from outside the European Union every year. Much is smuggled in via the 140 million tonnes of freight that pass through Britain's 42 ports 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.

Following the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, which cost the UK £8bn and was the result, many experts believe, of infected pork being smuggled into the UK, 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 doubled to almost 16,000 in the first year of operation.

But new figures from Customs and Excise, to be published soon as part of its annual review of the illegal meat trade, suggest that only now is its true scale starting to come to light.

Among the 15 countries identified by Customs and 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 totalled 9,616. The figure rose to 11,388 in the 11 months leading up to March 2005.

Despite the improved detection rates, critics say there is still a lack of a co-ordinated response to the problem from the government, local authorities, police forces and the Food Standards Agency. There are 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 what could happen once the produce slips into the UK.

'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.'

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said much had been done to combat the problem in the past two years. 'There are controls in place. We've done a lot in training up local authorities to become aware of the problem of illegal meat,' the spokesman said.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has also worked with ethnic minority communities to warn them of the catastrophes that could result from illegal meat entering the food chain.

But the threat persists. The veterinary agency acknowledges: '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 E.coli 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 bush meat. It is known to be in some of the countries where the bush meat is coming from. There is some information that suggests people living in those countries have contracted the disease from primates. We know that 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 a question the UK must pray it never has to answer.

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