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Illegal meat trade ‘unchecked’

Tom Wall12/12/2012 - 13:00

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Smokies are produced illegally
Smokies are produced illegally

Many urban councils have not seized any illegal meat in past five years, according to an exclusive EHN investigation.

Bradford, Leicestershire, Birmingham and Waltham Forest – which experts believe have hidden trades in unfit halal carcasses, bush meat or ‘smokies’ - have not discovered any illegal meat between October 2007 and October 2012.

Other urban councils have seized small amounts. Newham found three illegal meat consignments, Southwark seized 570kg of products of animal origins and Haringey discovered four illegal meat consignments in the same period.

EHN submitted freedom of information requests to seven English urban authorities with significant minority ethnic communities as part of its investigation.

All of the councils claim they routinely look for bush meat, emaciated carcasses and ‘smokies’ during inspections of butchers and other meat businesses.

But only Southwark Council has carried out any targeted inspections in the past five years. It visited 56 premises to gather intelligence and is taking further action against 15 of those premises.

Meat criminals are difficult to detect as the trade is ‘under the counter’. Some councils say they do not have enough resources to mount investigations.

Haringey and Waltham Forest, which shared environmental health services in 2011, admit a lack of resources hampers their efforts to catch meat criminals.

‘Investigations of illegal meat investigations are time consuming, complex and resource intensive. Investigations require experience, covert surveillance and engagement with relevant community and stakeholder involvement,’ they say.

Newham mentions ‘diminishing resources’. Southwark says work has to be prioritised as resources are finite.

But Birmingham, Leicester and Bradford insist they are adequately resourced.

John Pointing, a barrister with 15 years’ experience in food safety law, told EHN that he would have expected councils with large Muslim and Afro-Caribbean communities to have seized more illegal meat in the past five years.

‘I would expect the bush meat, smokies or the unfit halal carcass industry to be flourishing in these areas because of the size of their ethnic minority communities and the lack of enforcement,’ he said.

There is, he explained, a demand for relatively cheap, lean, halal meat in some Muslim communities and specialist, bush meat and smokies in some Afro-Caribbean and West African communities.

He said the trade was being ignored by councils as enforcement is difficult and expensive.

‘People supplying illegal meat know there is not any serious enforcement so they are doing it unchecked and making big profits,’ he said.

He added it was not just an issue for the Muslim and Afro-Caribbean communities.

‘People think it only affects these specific ethnic minority communities. But lots of people who are not from these communities eat in restaurants where they are likely to be exposed to health risks from illegally produced meat,’ he said.

Yunes Teinaz, an environmental health consultant who has worked for a number of London councils, told EHN that illegal meat was on sale wherever there was a demand.

‘For many years no councils have taken action to deal with meat illegally slaughtered or illegally imported into the UK,’ he said. ‘It is outrageous.’

He called for a public inquiry into the trade.

‘This meat is unfit and is coming into the human food chain. It is harming the health of the public,’ he said. ‘This is a very serious trade which involves gangs motivated only by financial gain.’

Paul Povey, an environmental health consultant, urged councils and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to do more to combat the illegal meat trade.

‘There is no control over this trade. We have no idea how the meat has been produced and processed,’ he said.

Bush meat – which includes the meat of relatively common species such as cane rats, antelopes and endangered ones such as gorillas, chimpanzees and giraffes - is often preserved and stored dangerously. It is also linked to the spread of serious diseases such as HIV and Ebola virus.

Unfit carcasses of old ewes, which are in an emaciated and oedematous condition, are sold as lean lamb to the Muslin community or as goat meat to African communities, or as lamb to the kebab industry.

Smokies, which are made by scorching the skin of sheep carcasses with a blowtorch, are a traditional West African delicacy but they pose a public health risk because they are produced illegally, often in the outbuildings of remote farms.

In 2003 six men were convicted of selling 450 tonnes of unfit poultry, produced in rat-infested sewage ridden premises in Derby, to firms supplying hospitals, supermarkets and schools across the UK.

In the same year EHOs uncovered huge amounts of illegal meat, including decomposing cows’ muzzles and goat carcasses, in East London. But the man alleged to be behind the operation was never brought to court because the evidence was lost.

The FSA said just because seizures have not been made does not mean local authorities have been inactive.

'All local authorities must be vigilant in looking out for trade in illegal meat. However, it should be acknowledged that a lot of the illegal meat trade goes on out of sight of enforcement officers, so it can be difficult to tackle without specific intelligence,' said a spokesperson.

'The FSA works hard to support local authorities by sharing intelligence through its food fraud database, and by providing additional training and resource from its dedicated food fraud fighting fund. We have supported a number of local authorities in successfully tackling the illegal meat trade, including recently North Yorkshire, Erewash, Bristol and Dacorum. Applications to the fighting fund have increased significantly this year, while other investigations are at an early stage.'

However the FSA said it recognised that more collaborative work needs to be done on illegal slaughter and has established a taskforce which will meet for the first time in January.

'There are three initial meetings, with industry, government and third parties, to establish how we may work closely together to approach the issue. We hope in the early meetings to outline the current situation, and then the aim is to develop new intervention responses and translate intelligence gathered into practical steps taken on the ground.'

Graham Jukes, CIEH chief executive, urged local authorities to remain vigilant despite public sector spending cuts.

'With local authorities currently under severe financial constraint it is not surprising that concerns are being raised that the tip of the illegal meat trade iceberg is becoming more visible. To gather the evidence base is costly and time consuming and requires the use of experienced environmental health practitioners and cross boundary and interagency working. However difficult that might be in today’s climate, local authorities must not relax their vigilance in this vital public health function,' he said.

He said there was a long history to the illegal meat trade.

'If you look back at the history of environmental health post war from illegal slaughtering and black market sales to the uncovering of organised crime in the 70s and 80s with “operation meathook” every decade for the last 40 we have periodically uncovered the continuous and extensive illegal trade in unfit meat,' he said. 

The CIEH, he continued, has brought this to attention of previous parliamentary select committees, evidenced our experiences to the BSE enquiry and worked with the FSA to provide mechanisms to support local authorities.

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