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Coordinating action on smuggling

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CERTAIN diseases have always had the capacity to move quickly round the world, but with globalisation, and increased movement of people, animals and goods, the stakes are getting higher. In recent years, outbreaks of, for example, sars, foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever and avian influenza have highlighted the need for an international approach to tackling disease and, in particular, for a coordinated approach to surveillance and prevention. In a paper prepared for a plenary session at a conference of the World Organisation for Animal Health (oie) Regional Commission for Europe, held in Lyon this week, the uk's Chief Veterinary Officer (cvo), Dr Debby Reynolds, focused on prevention and, in particular, efforts to prevent illegal imports (smuggling) of live animals and their products.

The cvo's paper provides a broad overview of European countries' perceptions of smuggling and the actions they take to prevent it. It is largely based on responses to a questionnaire survey sent to countries that are members of the oie's Regional Commission for Europe, ranging from Ireland in the west to Kazakhstan in the east, and from Iceland in the north down to southern Mediterranean countries. For the purposes of the study, smuggling was defined as ‘the intentional or unintentional movement of live animals and their products across borders outside the internationally established rules for trade in these goods’. There is clearly a difference between organised smuggling of animals and products and unintentional smuggling, which might involve, say, seasonal movement of animals across borders for grazing, or travellers carrying small amounts of traditional foods for personal use. However, both types of movement can spread disease. It is also important to recognise that the very nature of smuggling makes it difficult to determine the extent of the problem, which, in turn, makes it difficult to quantify the disease risks it may pose.

Of 50 countries sent the questionnaire, 43 responded, indicating a high level of interest. Most countries considered smuggling an important issue that could potentially have a significant impact on animal health and public health and their economies. For some, it was high on the political agenda and received high prominence. Given the size of the region, and the range of countries involved, it is not surprising that control measures differed between countries in terms of, for example, the number of official entry points, checks at borders, resources available and the penalties applied. However, most countries reported that their veterinary and customs services liaised on the issue and, while a few reported that they did not share best practice and intelligence with other countries, most emphasised the need for efforts to be coordinated internationally. Most countries had used risk assessment to try to evaluate the extent of smuggling and determine the type of control action to be carried out, and there appeared to be a consensus about the importance of balancing the cost of enforcement against the potential benefits of risk reduction.

Countries responding to the survey highlighted the most difficult issues in dealing with smuggling as: coordination across services and countries; the impracticability of physically checking all consignments at borders; lack of resources; long frontiers or being an island; dealing with ownerless goods and unaccompanied animals; being unable to check consignments during transhipment; long court procedures; low penalties; shortage of real-time information; inability to assess general and consignment-by-consignment risk; and a lack of awareness campaigns.

Areas identified where improvements could be made included: more and better coordination between countries; increased resources and public awareness; more checkpoints and a more intensive inspection regime; checks at the point of origin; availability of standardised database software and electronic notification of intercepted large consignments; introduction of written passenger declarations; and training.

Among the paper's recommendations are that countries tighten up the liaison between their veterinary and customs services to help improve their risk management strategy, improve efficiency and save resources; communicate more with one another to ensure a constant flow of shared information about intercepted large consignments of smuggled food; and implement action plans to combat smuggling at national, regional and international levels. It is also suggested that they should ensure political commitment and an effective legal base, and coordinate activities between government departments, other agencies and industry, transport companies and potential ‘end-users’. At a European regional level, it is suggested that there is a need for an agreement to encourage increased cooperation and sharing of intelligence. Internationally, it is suggested that there is a need to ensure intergovernmental collaboration by producing effective information campaigns, setting standards and evaluating economic incentives. It is further suggested that there is a need to determine the extent to which international transport organisations should be involved in the process of monitoring smuggling.

Like disease itself, smuggling is an international problem, which needs to be dealt with on an international basis. The uncertainties surrounding the issue make it all the more important that efforts are coordinated, and it is to be hoped that the recommendations are taken forward.

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