The NPA has called on the Prime Minister to take action to improve the UK’s border controls, as African swine fever (ASF) continues to spread in western Europe in an alarming way.
The decision by the Government to abandon plans to introduce checks on EU food products coming into the UK on July has caused alarm across the farming sector, which is is only heightened within the pig sector by the seemingly worsening ASF situation in Europe. Meanwhile, the industry’s concerns about our inadequate border controls have been reinforced by Food Standards Agency in a recent report.
There have been some worrying developments in the spread of ASF in Europe in recent weeks, including three outbreaks in domestic pigs in different parts of Germany.
In June, ASF was confirmed on a small outdoor pig farm in BadenWürttemberg, in southern Germany, close to the French border, more than 500km from all previous outbreaks in the country. With no nearby detection of the virus in wild boar, ‘human mediated spread’ was again identified as the likely source.
More recently, ASF made another jump of over 300km to a 280 sow unit close to the Dutch border, in Lower Saxony, the first case in pigs in this exceptionally pig dense state, trapping over 195,000 pigs in the 10km zone. Again there is no sign in wild boar, so human spread is suspected.
The disease has also been found on a farm in Brandenburg, where the disease has been circulating in wild boar since September 2020.
In early May, ASF was detected in wild boar in Rome, more than 500km away from an isolated outbreak reported in north-west Italy at the start of the year. Again, human spread was considered the most likely cause. A few weeks later, the virus was found in domestic pigs nearby, Italy’s first case in domestic animals.
These are far from isolated cases. APHA data show 1,800 ASF cases were confirmed in domestic pigs in Europe in the 12 months to the end of May, including 1,372 in Romania and more than 100 in each of Serbia, Poland and Russia, with a handful in Germany, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Latvia, Moldova and North Macedonia.
Over that period, there have been 9,000 outbreaks recorded in wild boar, including more than 6,000 in Poland and around 500-600 in Germany, Romania, Hungary and Latvia.
There has been growing concern within the farming sector since Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed in April that the Government was abandoning plans to introduce checks on animals and animal products from the EU on July 1.
Instead, it will ‘target’ the end of 2023 as the revised introduction date for a new digitised control regime. The decision also indefinitely delayed a requirement for documentation, such as health certificates, on EU imports and restrictions on imports of chilled meats from the EU.
Mr Rees-Mogg claimed introducing the checks ‘would have been an act of self-harm’, as businesses and individuals are hit by rising costs’, saying the move would save British businesses up to £1 billion per year.
UK food exporters have faced additional checks, documentation requirements, disruption, delays and costs on the back of new rules on EU exports from ‘Day 1’ of Brexit, January 1, 2020.
Letter to Prime Minister
In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson – which copied in Mr Rees-Mogg, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Defra Ministers George Eustice and Victoria Prentis – NPA chairman Rob Mutimer pointed out that between January and August 2021, 300,000 Export Health Certificates were required to export British produce to the EU, costing £40 million and taking up over 500,000 hours of veterinary resource.
“Yet, identical EU products are permitted to move the other way unhindered and at a lower cost, placing European businesses at a competitive advantage,” Mr Mutimer wrote.
“Not only are we deliberately harming our own business interests, we are advertising an open border approach to anyone who would wish to avoid the customs duties, taxes and biosecurity checks which come with trading with a third country.”
Mr Mutimer highlighted the spread of ASF in Europe, which, while predominantly spread by wild boar, can also result from the movement of contaminated meat products, ‘often being traded illegally from restricted zones where ASF outbreaks have occurred’.
“If no biosecurity checks are taking place at UK borders to prevent and deter the illegal import of contaminated meats, we are leaving ourselves worryingly vulnerable to a catastrophe,” he added.
“While the Government awaits the introduction of a new digital trading system, we ask that our borders be significantly better protected through more robust checks at all points of entry, including ports, airports and postal hubs.”
He pointed out that a two-week multi-agency exercise in 2020 at Heathrow and Gatwick airports saw significant quantities of illegal meat imports seized, which appears to be ‘indicative of a far wider problem’.
Since then, Scottish authorities have introduced sniffer dog teams to detect products of animal origin. “These are based permanently at key entry points, and we would welcome a UK-wide expansion of this initiative,” he said.
Concerns about the ability of the UK to police import standards were raised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in its annual review of UK food standards in June.
It warned that current systems in place were ‘not sufficient replacement for the introduction of robust import controls’ and that the lack of document checks and physical inspections ‘means we are not receiving official assurance from the exporting country that those imports meet the UK’s high food and feed safety standards’.
“The longer the UK operates without assurance from the exporting country that products meet the UK’s high food and feed safety standards, the less confident we can be that we can effectively identify potential safety incidents. It is vital that the UK has the ability to prevent entry of unsafe food and identify and respond to changing risks,” it said.
A Defra spokesperson added: “We have strict biosecurity controls on the highest risk imports of animals, animal by-products, plants and plant products from the EU.
“EU countries affected by ASF cannot export pork or pork products from affected regions unless in very specific circumstances. We continue to assess the risk of ASF and consider of whether further mitigations are needed, including targeted interventions at the border.”
The Department indicated that it is working closely with Border Force regarding the threat of illegally imported products of animal origin (POAO) to target illegal imports of pork from high-risk areas, citing the operation at airports targeting POAO arriving in freight, parcels and passenger channels from ASF-affected countries in Asia, with nearly half a tonne of material seized.
Defra has just consulted on updating its wider Biological Security Strategy – the NPA has responded with firm calls to reinforce the strategy to better protect the health of the UK pig herd.