US visitors fear for their hands and feet

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The Independent Online

Americans believe that if they visit the UK "their hands and feet will fall off", claims a devastating new report into the effect of the foot and mouth outbreak on tourism.

Americans believe that if they visit the UK "their hands and feet will fall off", claims a devastating new report into the effect of the foot and mouth outbreak on tourism.

The study into America's view of the disease could not come at a gloomier time. The rise in the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth shows no sign of abating.

Yesterday the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced another 65 new cases, bringing the total to 845. About 570,000 animals have now been killed while a further 340,000 are earmarked for slaughter. Last night, Nick Brown, Agriculture Minister, announced cattle less than five years old can be buried rather than incinerated to speed up the disposal of carcasses.

The study of American attitudes, commissioned by the Irish government, made "grim reading", said a senior minister in the Northern Ireland assembly. "They don't believe there will be any food here they will be able to eat," said Sir Reg Empey, the province's enterprise and tourism minister, "They believe they can contract the disease and in some extreme cases Americans think their hands and feet will fall off.

"This is how bizarre this incident has been played in the United States. They see this place as a diseased country and we have a huge task to change those perceptions."

Yesterday, Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, sought to convince the world Britain is open to tourists but admitted global reports, especially in the US, were suggesting Britain was closed and the countryside "burnt to a cinder". He warned Britain was losing £100m a week but that figure could rise to as high as £250m with the peak season approaching.

Meanwhile, an Independent on Sunday investigation into illegal meat imports, widely thought to be the cause of the outbreak, shows the scale of the problem and the ineffectiveness of current controls.

Port health officials, who seize animal products hidden in containers at airports and ports, said regulations meant they cannot inspect shipping and air cargoes coming from the European Union. Since 1993, health officials and customs have been forbidden from carrying out spot checks on goods arriving from another European country.

One port health official said: "What we find is pure luck. We are starved of resources. Unless something is done Britain will stay wide open to illegal meat imports."

Last year at Heathrow, almost five tons of potentially dangerous meat were found on just 14 flights from Ghana and Nigeria in a sample operation co-ordinated by health officials and Maff. The material was in passengers' baggage and hand luggage. A further five tons of illegal meat were found in a small number of spot checks on airport cargo sheds.

Officers have found bushmeat from rodents, antelopes and other exotic species destined for ethnic restaurants. Within the past three months officers found a consignment of seven whole cooked frozen monkeys from Cameroon hidden in a cargo of vegetables. Customs are considering a prosecution under legislation against the trade in endangered species.

At Tilbury docks last year, port health officials confiscated 279 tons of illegal meat from 59 consignments. At Thames Port, on the Isle of Grain in Kent, 38 tons in 17 consignments were found, and at London City Airport officers found 3.5 tons in 161 seizures.

In Felixstowe, the biggest container port in Britain, seizures of illegal meat average one a week, according to assistant port health director Doug Bloomfield. "We get everything ­ shrimps, fish and meat noodles, dried meat, sausages. Recently there was a big load of jellyfish from Thailand. Usually it is mixed in with other foodstuffs to hide it and described as something else on the ship's manifest."

In Hull, where huge quantities of frozen fish are legally imported, officers have found illegal consignments of meat and even tripe mixed in. Said Roy Kaye, chief port health inspector: "If a 40ft container says 'carrots' on the manifest, how do you know what is really inside? If someone was to put a carton of something else in, how would you know?"