British agency orders ports to inspect imports for contaminated milk

All imported food arriving at British ports and airports via China will be tested for melamine in what officials say will be a vast operation

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British ports will begin inspecting air freight and shipments of imported food from tomorrow in a major food safety operation triggered by the contaminated milk scandal in China.

The Food Standards Agency put more than 80 ports and airports on alert yesterday and ordered health officials to intercept and test any food products arriving via China that contain more than 15% milk, including cakes, chocolate, biscuits, bread and protein drinks.

The action followed moves by the European Food Standards Agency last week to prevent dairy products contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine entering member states. Baby formula contaminated with melamine has killed at least four children in China and made tens of thousands ill, leading to widespread bans on imports to 12 countries.

Europe, meanwhile, had already banned all imports of animal products, including baby formula, from China several years ago. The latest safeguards are designed to intercept other products called "composites" that also contain milk or milk powder in lower quantities.

Officials at the Food Standards Agency met with importers yesterday to agree a list of foods that port health authorities must check consignments for. Any product with more than 15% milk content must be tested for melamine, along with foods where the milk content cannot be established.

Importers who have food on route to Britain from China, Singapore and Hong Kong were asked to submit paperwork to help ports establish which products need testing. Legal documents giving ports the power to conduct the inspections and tests were drawn up last night.

Impounded food must be sent for independent testing at laboratories such as the government contractor, the LGC in Teddington near London. Food that tests positive for more than 2.5mg of melamine per kilo will be reported and destroyed. The Food Standards Agency said all costs for the operation would be borne by companies whose products were sent for testing.

Last night, chief port health officials said the scale of the operation could be vast, particularly at key ports in London, Southampton and Felixstowe.

"Food products tend to come in mixed packages, so if we have to start unpacking containers, it could become a very big job. There's also a lot of food labelling that doesn't give percentages of ingredients," said one port authority official.

Tests for melamine usually take one to two days, but delays could run into weeks if lab build-up backlogs of food that requires testing.

At the weekend, the World Health Organisation said the devastating impact of the contamination in China had been "aggravated" by officials failing to report the problem quickly enough.

Melamine was added to baby formula to bulk it up, but in some cases reached levels 100 times higher than a baby can tolerate. The chemical, used to make plastics and foams, can cause bladder and kidney stones when ingested.



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