Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State at the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) addressed the first ever meeting of a forum on Illegal Food Imports in London yesterday [Thursday].

The aims of the forum are to agree the next steps for intensifying our efforts against illegal imports and to identify further priorities and action. The forum will look at four key areas:

* risk analysis - to gain a better understanding of the real risk and the critical points for taking action;
* enforcement action which is appropriate to the UK's need and the level of the risks;
* legal powers at UK and EU level required to underpin enforcement operations, and
* increasing public awareness of the UK's rules on imports of animal and plant products.

Beckett said: "It is paramount that we have in place a safety net to protect the UK from the risk of exotic disease from illegal imports so that consumers and producers can go about their business with confidence and the public can feel safe about their food and the environment. 

"We are also committed to preventing illegal trade in endangered species and takes enforcement action extremely seriously.

"But Government cannot do this by itself. Today, we are meeting with representatives from air and sea carriers and operators, travel agencies, food and drink manufacturers, traders, farmers, the food industry, retailers, the veterinary service, enforcement agencies and other government departments and agencies.

"We intend to set up an action programme that helps reduce the risk of disease from illegal imports. 

"In a globalised world there is probably no zero-risk - that is why internal controls are equally important. But we want to encourage a partnership approach that will work towards minimising the risk to the UK from the harm that illegal imports can place on our public and animal health and our environment."

An action plan will be produced to reflect the Forum's agreed views on priorities and actions points and made public shortly.