Dover Port health body fears gangs of meat smugglers looking to bypass new post-Brexit checks | Food & drink industry

The Port of Dover could become a target for criminals smuggling illegal and diseased meat into the country under new post-Brexit plans that will involve lorries from the continent being checked 22 miles inland, the port’s health authority has warned.

The Dover Port Health Authority (DPHA) is now considering legal action against the government over its decision to end physical checks of imported meat at a post within the port. Instead, lorries will be directed to a new checking facility half an hour’s drive up the M20 at Sevington, Ashford.

Lucy Manzano, the head of the authority, said that as a port with the only inland border control post in the country, Dover could become a hotspot for criminal gangs trying to bypass checks.

She said: “These goods will now come through Dover without interception at the port, with the anticipation and hope that drivers will self-present at a facility 22 miles away.

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“It would be reasonable to assume that people involved in criminal activity – and there’s lots of money to be made within food crime – would start redirecting their stuff through Dover, because the controls won’t be in place.”

The warning from the body, which is run by Dover district council, comes before the new post-Brexit border rules being brought in at the end of April, which will require most meat and dairy products to be physically checked at government border control posts (BCPs). At present, only spot checks are carried out by the DPHA on loads that come through the port.

Currently, the DPHA is able to carry out spot checks on certain food products at the port to stop biosecurity threats such as meat carrying African swine fever from entering the country. In 2022, the authority seized 66 tonnes of illegal meat products as a result of these checks.

The Sevington inland border facility near Ashford, Kent. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Antonio Olmos

Despite all other BCPs being positioned within ports, the government decided in November that physical checks of imports coming through Dover, the UK’s busiest port, will instead happen at its £147m Sevington post in Ashford, Kent.

This came despite initially indicating that the DPHA would carry out some checks within the Port of Dover itself, at its Bastion Point facility, which was only opened in spring 2022.

Since then, the DPHA has been lobbying the government to reverse its decision but says that after “very poor communication in recent months”, it is now considering legal action.

Manzano said it had engaged lawyers and was looking at the legality of having checks so far away from the border, and how this could weaken the country’s biosecurity.

She said: “What we’re getting [from the government] is high level statements saying that biosecurity will be maintained, and enhanced, but without detail.

“I understand through experience of seeing it on a daily basis [over 25 years], that this proposal cannot be delivered in a way that maintains biosecurity, and without undermining all of our import controls.”

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Last week, the environment, food and rural affairs committee wrote to the environment, minister Steve Barclay, warning the Sevington plan presented a “potentially serious biosecurity risk” and compromised compliance regarding lorries carrying goods.

It wrote: “We understand that drivers will be under no obligation to go to Sevington, if asked to do so. As such, we have real and reasonable concerns about the geographic dislocation of the inland border facility from the point of entry.”

Manzano said most of the illegal meat it intercepted in 2022 came from the EU, and had travelled for days, often without being packaged or refrigerated properly, and in some cases came from regions with high risk of African swine fever, such as Romania.

She warned that without checks at the port to pick these up some illegal loads could bypass Sevington and enter the supply and this would increase the risk of disease spreading by “an order of magnitude”.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We have strict border controls in place to protect our high biosecurity standards – and are confident that existing and new infrastructure will have the capacity and capability to maintain these standards.

“We recognise the strategic importance of the port of Dover and are continuing to work with the port authority on future support options.”

The spokesperson declined to comment further due to potential legal proceedings.

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