Courts 'failing to deter meat gangs'

Lenient penalties handed out by the courts over the illegal meat trade are sending out "dangerous signals" to organised gangs and individual smugglers, experts are warning.

Tory Shadow Agricultural Minister Jim Paice told the Yorkshire Post that lack of prosecutions and soft sentences meant that illegal meat criminals often had little concern about punishment should they get caught.

Retired district judge Paul Firth, who sat in magistrates courts in Yorkshire, agreed that such penalties sent out the wrong messages.

The accusations come after the Yorkshire Post revealed on Saturday that only one out of 35,001 illegal meat seizures resulted in prosecution last year.

Mr Paice said: "The fact is that those smuggling meat into this country have a 99.99 per cent chance of escaping prosecution and little concern about the punishment should they get caught.

"Other countries take this issue far more seriously. Australia, for example, employs 75 detector dog teams (compared with just 11 in the UK) and has spot fines and stiff penalties of up to 10 years in prison."

Officials admit that the average person caught with half a suitcase of illegal meat will have their produce destroyed and their details recorded. Only when they have been caught several times will they be arrested.

Crown Courts can impose unlimited fines or two years imprisonment on those who smuggle meat or place unsafe food on the market.

Magistrates can fine offenders up to 20,000 with a jail sentence of up to six months.

For more serious activities it is possible to prosecute for conspiracy to defraud under the Theft Act 1968, for which the penalty is an unlimited fine and/or a maximum of 10 years imprisonment.

In reality, however, this law is rarely used against meat criminals because such offences are difficult to prove and experts say local authority prosecutors are often wary of using them.

The only person prosecuted for meat smuggling in the last year was an Egyptian woman who was fined 300 after she was caught with 83 kilos (183lb) of meat and dairy products at Heathrow Airport in February this year.

Mr Paice said: "This leniency sends a dangerous signal to the organised gangs who are jeopardising public and animal health that illegally importing meat is a risk free undertaking."

Mr Firth added: "This particular fine strikes me a bit on the low side. I would be looking at something up to 1,000 for an offence like that.

"When a 300 fine is reported, it's hardly a deterrent to other people.

"I think the law as it stands is perfectly adequate to deal with illegal meat, but the maximum fine is almost out of reach when you take other things into account like limited circumstances, early guilty plea and a first offence."

He added that few prosecutions for illegal meat offences meant that most magistrates would be inexperienced at dealing with cases and there were no guidelines to deal with it: "It's not a great help to say that the maximum sentence is 20,000 when they haven't got other cases to compare it to."

Illegal meat expert Yunes Teinaz believes penalties available under food law are inadequate to deter some persistent offenders who he says can afford to pay the fines as overhead costs and are very good at exploiting legal loopholes.

He said: "Regulation of meat issues is extremely complex, with a large number of agencies involved, and it is too easy for criminals to exploit the gaps. As things stand, the potentially huge financial rewards far outweigh the risks of being caught."

Even if local authorities are keen to crackdown, police have limited resources to deal with complex cases of conspiracy and can be put off by the scale of such investigations.

In 2001 Derbyshire Police investigated a scandal involving a pet food processor who sold condemned meat to middlemen, which was then sold to shops and restaurants.

What was supposed to be six weeks of police support turned into an 18-month investigation costing the police 1.75m. Following convictions, the head of the operation, Det Chief Insp Neil Perry, said he would seriously think twice about getting involved in such a case again.