Port health authorities: monitoring of food imports
Controls on UK food and feed imports, checks and inspections of high-risk food at UK borders, fees and documentation for importers.
Port health authorities are usually the UK local authority where a port or airport is located. They have responsibility to protect the public, environmental and animal health of the UK. Some are specially created local authorities for seaports where the port area is covered by more than one local authority.
These authorities carry out a range of health controls at the UK borders. These include checks on imported food, inspecting ships and aircraft for food safety and infectious disease control, as well as general public and environmental health checks. The work is carried out by port health officers (specialist environmental health officers) and veterinarians, who are employed by the local authority or port health authority.
Port health controls are managed by local authorities who enforce regulations on behalf of central government. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are responsible for the overall policy in the area of public and animal health for food and feed. Through the Association of Port Health Authorities the local authorities work closely together and liaise with the government.
This guide outlines the imported food controls carried out by port health authorities and looks at how different organisations are responsible for enforcement. It explains how you can comply with relevant health regulations, what to do if you fail to meet import conditions and who to go to for help.
Role and responsibilities of port health authorities
Checks on food at the point of import are in place throughout Europe to control the risks to human and animal health. Many ports and airports in the UK have specialist facilities that deal with high-risk food imports such as food of animal origin, meat and fish products, as well as other high-risk foods such as peanuts. The importance of these controls has been reinforced in recent times, with outbreaks of avian influenza and foot and mouth disease.
Local authorities (including the port health authorities) enforce controls on UK food imports. The created port health authorities ease administration at seaports where the port area is covered by more than one local authority.
Port health authorities carry out checks on food and feed consignments in order to:
- ensure that only products that are safe to eat enter the food chain
- safeguard animal and public health
- check compliance with EU rules and international trading standards
Port health authorities are responsible for monitoring all food imports but will not physically check all food imports. It’s your responsibility to ensure that your products are safe to eat.
Although detailed import checks may be carried out on any food products from non-EU countries (‘third countries’), the actual checks carried out are determined on a risk basis. For products that have been declared as high risk at an EU/UK level, special health controls are in place, and checks must be carried out at import stage. Port health authorities must be notified in advance of the arrival of your goods.
One of the groups of products that are subject to special checks are products of animal origin (POAO). Checks on these products are referred to as veterinary checks and are carried out to protect both public and animal health. POAO include products such as:
- dairy products
- hay and straw
There are a number of products which have been found to present a particular risk to public health. Checks are carried out on food not of animal origin (FNAO). These include, but are not limited to:
- palm oil
- pistachios and other nuts
Some of these products may be subject to special controls or may be banned altogether. You can find details of FNAO subject to special controls on the FSA website.
Certain other feed and food of non-animal origin from named certain third countries are subject to increased controls. Such products can only enter the UK through specific ports and airports, approved as designated points of entry (DPE) and the port health authority at that DPE needs to be notified at least one day in advance of import.
For the full detail, you can:
- find the list of DPEs
- download Regulation 669/2009 on increased controls on import of certain feed and food (PDF, 864K)
- download Commission Regulation (EU) 212/2010 revising the list of controlled feed and food products (PDF, 745K)
The port health authorities also carry out checks on imports of organic produce. Importers can register with the Defra Organic Farming Branch to provide advance notice of the arrival of their goods.
There are also controls on imports of plants and plant produce, including:
- certain fruit
The Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate is responsible for implementing controls. They require all importers of controlled health plant goods to register and provide advance notice of at least four working hours if brought in by air and in all other cases (including ship) at least three working days. If you do not pre-notify your consignment, it will not be Customs cleared.
Choosing a port
You may already know the port or airport you intend to use. If you’re unsure you can get a list and full contact details from the Association of Port Health Authorities (APHA). You can contact the Association of Port Health Authorities (APHA).
If you’re importing controlled foods such as meat or peanuts make sure the port or airport you use is approved to carry out checks on your consignment, or your consignment will be refused entry.
See the guide on Border Inspection Posts for live animals and animal products
Fees for consignment checks
Port health authorities may inspect any consignment. There’s normally no charge for this, although the Port Operator may make a charge for making the consignment available for inspection. However, if your consignment is subject to special controls there may be a charge to cover the cost of the checks. This applies to consignments of products of animal origin (POAO), organic products and certain food products not of animal origin.
Charges for POAO
Before your consignment of POAO can be released you must pay a standard charge for any veterinary checks. The basic fee payable is based on the gross weight of the consignment. If physical checks are made - such as samples taken for laboratory analysis - you may be required to meet the extra cost. Your local Border Inspection Post (BIP) will be able to give you information on charges per consignment size. You can find information about fees for veterinary checks.
Charges for FNAO
Charges apply for controls on products of high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin listed in Annex I of Regulation (EC) 669/2009, as amended by Commission Regulation (EU) 212/2010.
For other high-risk foods (food not of animal origin (FNAO)) the legislation that introduces the controls will specify the relevant charge, if any. You can find a list of FNAO subject to special controls.
If your consignment fails to comply with import conditions you’ll be required to reimburse the authority for the costs of the enforcement action, as well as for the cost of re-exporting or destroying it.
Port Operator charges
Other charges may also be levied by the Port Operator for the presentation and handling of your consignment at the port or airport. You may also be liable for storage/demurrage or incineration charges if your consignment is detained.
Inspection of goods by port health authorities
Port health authorities’ controls vary according to the level of risk an import is likely to pose. If port health authorities have concerns about your consignment they can detain it at the port for inspection or sampling to make sure that it’s safe to eat. Certain goods are excluded from the EU as they present a known risk to human or animal health. Other high-risk products are required to pass though the port to undergo checks.
Monitoring of imports is usually carried out by checking the manifest. This is carried out via the Port Community System where available. In ports where there’s not sufficient access to pre-arrival information you may be asked to provide details of all food imports to the port health office either electronically or by fax.
If the information on the manifest is ambiguous you’ll need to provide a copy of the invoice and Bill of Lading or similar to indicate the exact nature of your goods. For certain products you may be asked to provide a list of ingredients, so that officers can check the exact composition. Your goods may be detained until this information is received.
There are also controls on additives such as colourings and sweeteners, checks for microbiological safety, labelling, genetically modified ingredients and novel ingredients. You can find out about the range of food import checks.
High-risk food not of animal origin (FNAO)
FNAO from certain countries is classed as high risk due to the likelihood of contamination. This includes:
- peanuts, pistachios and dried fruits from Egypt, China, Iran and Turkey which may be contaminated with aflatoxins
- mushrooms and wild berries from Ukraine and other countries in the region which may be contaminated with radiocaesium
These products must be imported at specific ports to undergo checks. The restrictions also apply to foods containing controlled composite products such as pistachio halva and peanut brittle.
Products of animal origin (POAO)
These products are considered high-risk and must be accompanied by specific documentation to demonstrate that health conditions have been met.
- be from an EU-approved country
- be from an EU-approved establishment
- come with a health certificate
For further information on the necessary documentation, see the guide on products of animal origin.
Port health checks
There are three levels of check carried out - documentary, identity and physical.
In the documentary check, the health certificates and any accompanying laboratory test results are checked for authenticity and cross-matched with the details of the commercial documents to ensure that they relate to the consignment.
The identity check involves the inspection of the consignment, checking the container seals and often the packaging of the goods to ensure that the goods match the information on the certification. Labelling and health marking will also be checked.
The physical inspection of the goods involves the inspection of the product. The packaging will be opened and the product examined to ensure that it is safe to eat and that it is the same product as certified. Where appropriate, the inspector will make an organoleptic (sight, smell, taste) assessment of the product. Samples may also be taken for laboratory assessment.
All consignments of controlled goods are subject to at least a documentary check. Other inspections will be applied randomly in accordance with the inspection quotas set out in EU legislation.
The frequency of physical checks for products of animal origin (POAO) is:
- 20 per cent for meat and fish
- 50 per cent for poultry meat, honey and dairy products
- 1-10 per cent for inedible POAO, such as hay
The frequency of physical checks for food not of animal origin (FNAO) is:
- 100 per cent of Brazil nuts from Brazil and pistachios from Iran
- 10 per cent of peanuts from China
- 20 per cent of peanuts from Egypt
- 5-10 per cent of figs, hazelnuts and pistachios from Turkey
If you’re importing food from either Canada or New Zealand note that reduced levels of checks apply due to the Equivalence Agreement (based on the high safety records of these countries).
The frequency of identity and physical checks on certain other high-risk feed and food of non-animal origin under Regulation (EC) 669/2009 can be found in Annex I of that Regulation.
Port health authorities may take formal samples of high-risk food products. This may be required by the control legislation or as a result of a risk assessment carried out in respect of the product. If your consignment is formally sampled it’ll be detained while a public analyst or microbiologist carries out an inspection to check prescribed hygiene standards are met.
Changes to checking frequencies
If a consignment of POAO fails inspection, staff are required to increase checks of similar products from the exporting country. Additional checks on imports may be carried out in accordance with a national monitoring scheme such as the veterinary medicine residues monitoring programme or a local sampling programme. Your local port health authority should be able to advise you of any schemes that exist.
Increased rates of checking may also apply because of new information sent via the RASFF.
You can find out about the RASFF.
Rejection of import consignments by port health authorities and appeal procedures
If you’re importing controlled food or feed products required to enter the country through a BIP or a designated port and you fail to provide notification, you’ll be considered to have smuggled the goods. As a result you may lose your consignment and not receive compensation. You could also face prosecution.
Failure to meet import conditions
The certifying officer has the final decision on whether your consignment meets the import conditions set out in law. Initially you or your agent will be advised informally of the officer’s findings and consulted on the options that are available to you.
You may then be served a legal notice. This will state the reasons for rejection and the actions that you may take in respect of the consignment, including:
- remedial action or use of the consignment for another purpose in some permitted cases
Port health authorities will inform inspection bodies in the UK and the rest of Europe of their findings and the action taken using RASFF.
For further information see Border Inspection Posts for live animals and animal products
Re-exporting rejected consignments
This course of action is only taken if the consignment poses no risk to public or animal health. All relevant documentation and certification will be marked as invalid. The consignment must be re-dispatched outside the European Union from the same port within 60 days of the notice being served.
Destroying rejected consignments
This takes place at an approved disposal facility. For most products incineration is the only solution due to the high health risks involved. You will need to cover all of the costs.
Appealing against action taken by a port health authority
Initially you should discuss any concerns you may have with the enforcement officer directly. However, if a notice has been formally served, you have the right to appeal against the decision. You should lodge your appeal at a magistrate’s court within one month of the notice being served. If your appeal fails you may take your complaint to the Crown Court.
For certain notices in respect of products of animal origin (POAO), the only method of appeal is through Judicial Review. These are exceptional cases and they can be costly. Contact your legal adviser if you intend to commence proceedings.
Support and advice on port health import controls
You may have questions regarding any consignment you’re importing which may be liable to port health controls. If you’re using an agent or freight forwarder they may be able to help.
Once you have identified the port or airport you intend to use to import your goods, you can choose to contact them directly.
If you’re importing products of animal origin the port or airport must have a Border Inspection Post (BIP).
The Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) of the European Commission carries out regular inspections of BIPs to see if they meet European Union standards.
Defra has responsibility for animal and plant import health.
For contact details of your local Animal and Plant Health Agency office use the postcode search tool.
The FSA enforces regulations concerning non-animal origin food imports.
If you want to carry out tests on food you’re importing, you can contact the environmental health services at your local authority. They may be able to arrange for chemical or microbiological analysis, though you’ll be charged for this.
Alternatively, you may choose to use the services of an official food control laboratory or agricultural analyst.
You may prefer to contact your local chamber of commerce for help on port health matters.
Any attempt to import food by avoiding the standard controls is illegal. Smuggled food imports are the responsibility of HMRC, who operate a number of teams at customs-approved areas of ports of entry.
Association of Port Health Authorities helpline - Telephone: 020 7827 5838
Rural Payments Agency helpline - Telephone: 0345 603 7777
Defra Organic Team Import Section - Telephone: 020 7238 5777
Food Standards Agency helpline - Telephone: 020 7276 8829
Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency - Telephone: 01245 358 383
Defra Plant Health Division - Telephone: 01904 455 174
Defra Helpline - Telephone: 03459 33 55 77
HMRC: Customs Hotline - Telephone: 0800 595 000
Published: 5 October 2012