Source: Getty

Defra is planning to slash the budget of the Dover port health team inspecting meat that may be infected with African swine fever 

The government’s proposal to cut crucial funding to the border checks department at the port of Dover poses a significant threat to UK food security, local health authorities have warned.

Defra is planning to introduce a 70% budget cut to the inspection team at Dover that is responsible for screening pork for African swine fever (ASF) from April this year.

But local health authorities have warned of the significant impact this will have on Britain’s food safety.

Lucy Manzano, head of port health and public protection at Dover District Council, said the cuts would directly affect the number of personnel tasked with carrying out the inspections and “seriously undermine” the UK’s ability to identify any potential biosecurity threats.

The inspection team – which is part of Dover District Council and was set up in 2022 in response to ramping ASF outbreaks in Europe – is currently responsible for screening high-risk meat goods entering the UK at both at a commercial and personal level.

“These are national checks that exist to protect all of us and it is entirely unacceptable to say ‘we want you to deliver these’ on a 70% funding cut,” Manzano said. “We are responsible for controlling and eliminating infectious disease at the border so it puts the local authority in an untenable position.”

The 70% funding cuts are set to apply to the financial year of 2024/2025. Manzano told The Grocer there had been “no commitment at all” from Defra in terms of funding for 2025/2026.

She said she was concerned the department would “inevitably” be forced to reduce the level of checks it currently performs if the budget cuts did go ahead, against a backdrop of increasing amounts of illegal meat being seized at the point of entry over the past couple of years.

Over five tonnes of illegal meat were confiscated over the weekend before Christmas 2023 alone, according to DPHA.

Defra has said that preventing an outbreak of ASF in the UK remained one of its key biosecurity priorities.

Back in 2022 it announced controls restricting the movement of pork and pork products. For instance, travellers have since not been allowed to bring meat weighing over two kilograms into GB, unless they are produced to the EU’s commercial standards.

But health authorities argue the measures are not enough in the face of the sheer volumes of meat they screen on a daily basis, and that slashing their budget will only increase the risks of the disease entering the UK.

Read more: Dover Port accuses Defra of undermining UK food safety with border checks move

“[The government] talks about these being personal imports, implying that I might come through with an odd sausage and be completely unaware I shouldn’t carry it – we will get a few people like that, but largely these are people coming through with coaches without people in them full of meat and meat-related products,” Manzano said. “These are vans and cars carrying meat of a commercial standard, so this is really substantial stuff.

“The Saturday prior we took out 1.1 tonnes from just three vehicles in the space for about three hours, and just on a Saturday morning – that gives you an idea of the scale when there are thousands of vehicles coming in every day.

“If they cut our funding, they cut our ability to actually make these seizures. It could then be perceived that the risk is being controlled and has gone away, because there are no seizures any more – but there’s no seizures because you’re not funding the checks to take place”, Manzano added.

The UK has never had an outbreak of ASF, but recent outbreaks across the EU have sounded the alarm for neighbouring countries. The DPHA has estimated that an outbreak of ASF could cost Britain upwards of £8bn.

The National Pig Association has recently called for tighter import controls, warning an outbreak of ASF “would be catastrophic for the pig sector, with many knock-on effects”.

“We urge the government to take this threat seriously.”