Despite well-publicised concerns over the possibility of a renewed outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and how it could be caused, the illegal import of meat products into the UK continues to flourish.

Much of the meat is highly sought after as exotic delicacies, or because it is reputed to have healing or aphrodisiac properties. Some of it is from endangered species such as gorillas, apes, snakes, lizards, tigers and bears. Most of it comes from Africa, notably Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon, although airline passengers arriving from China, the UAE, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan and Russia have also been caught smuggling in banned meat.

Customs officers have recently intercepted significant cargoes of rotting meat and fish during random checks at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Much of it is simply carried in by passengers in their luggage, and finds its way into specialist food retail outlets and market stalls in London. Inquiries by the Evening Standard newspaper found similar consignments coming in regularly at London City Airport and the capital's main shipping ports

Calls for tougher legislation

London's Port Health director, John Averns, has asked for more investment to be made available for additional staff to fight the criminal import of meat products. He also called for legislation to greater powers to search passengers' luggage.

Clive Lawrance, Heathrow airport's meat transport director, who has repeatedly drawn attention to the problem, says little has changed in recent times apart from a new poster in airport lounges warning passengers against smuggling. He feels this is a far from adequate response to the problem, saying: "There is no real emergency containment procedure to deal with potentially lethal rotting foodstuffs."

The National Farmers Union has also slammed government efforts to fight back against illegal meat imports as farcical, claiming it was based on "half a dozen A4 posters". X-ray machines are commercially available which can detect meat products in luggage. However, they cost some £180,000 (US$255,100) to install, and as yet, there appear to be no plans to install them.

The grave impact of smuggled meat products was highlighted yesterday [Tuesday] when news broke that two sheep in Yorkshire were suspected of having foot and mouth disease. This came just weeks after the UK was finally declared free of the disease after an epidemic that lasted nearly a year and cost the UK economy up to £20bn in compensation payments to farmers, lost exports and stayaway tourism. While Defra today reported that the sheep had tested negative for the disease, the scare should serve to remind all parties just how vulnerable animal health is.

A new outbreak could be triggered by something as apparently insignificant as a half-eaten sandwich being thrown away on farmland and subsequently eaten by livestock.

Nor is foot and mouth the only disease that could be spread through illegal meat imports. They could even contain dangerous human viruses such as tuberculosis.

In a sign that the government is making a renewed effort to grapple with the problem, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has called a high-level forum next month to agree further action.

To read more on yesterday's suspected case of foot and mouth disease, click here.