Foot-and-mouth fear over lax import controls

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The Independent Online

A team of inspectors has found a catalogue of failings it says is undermining the controls protecting Britain from contaminated food and animal imports.

A team of inspectors has found a catalogue of failings it says is undermining the controls protecting Britain from contaminated food and animal imports.

The European Commission has demanded urgent action to improve border controls amid warnings that lax record keeping and poor border inspections could allow foot-and-mouth disease to return to Britain.

A report by European inspectors on nine ports and airports, including Heathrow airport, Bristol, Hull and Belfast, found a string of serious failings, including problems with hygiene, record keeping and training.

Inspectors noted problems with the paperwork accompanying imports, warning that systems to identify consignments were not complete in most of the ports visited. They said vets "did not always have a complete overview of which consignments are arriving, have arrived, or are in transit". They warned: "This was in particular the case for Heath-row, as a large part of the manifests were not received and could not be checked."

Inspectors said there were too few qualified vets to make checks on imports and training was "inadequate".

Their report found training, hygiene, facilities, registration of shipments and the procedures at the nine ports had failed to comply with European regulations at all the ports inspected.

Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, criticised the inspectors' conclusions in an official response to the commission, warning that they implied "major failings of the systems when what in fact was found was a small number of isolated shortcomings".

But Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Rural Affairs Secretary, condemned the report as "shocking confirmation that the situation is even worse than I feared".

He said: "For months we have been highlighting the glaring inadequacies of government measures to protect consumers and farmers from illegal imports which could have severe consequences for human health and animal welfare."

He added: "Ministers have adopted a tone of haughty disdain for the criticism, a tone echoed in the chief veterinary officer's response to the Commission's findings.

"Where failures have been admitted, they have been blamed on the foot-and-mouth crisis. How much longer will we have to put up with this excuse? Foot-and-mouth itself almost certainly entered the country because of lax border inspections, and the Government have done nothing to prevent it happening again. This is yet further evidence that Defra is failing the public."

A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said an action plan had been submitted to the Commission and would be implemented by July.

He said: "We are providing extra personnel and more rigorous training and addressing the host of detailed points put forward by the Commission."

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