The government has been urged to open an investigation into illegal imports of veterinary drugs, after the number seized at the UK border increased dramatically last year.
The Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the executive agency that regulates animal drugs, seized more than 40 different illegal medicines in the year to March 2021, compared with just one in 2019, one in 2018 and three in 2017.
Many of the packages were addressed to residential premises and came from as far afield as Australia, India, South Africa and Thailand. Some contained enough medicine for hundreds of doses.
It is an offence to import veterinary medicines without a licence in the UK and, while most of the medicines seized by border officials were not banned substances, many were prescription drugs that could provide a public health danger if not used responsibly.
Among the drugs seized were hormones, steroids and a number of different antibiotics intended for use on a wide range of animals, including dogs, horses, pigeons and food-producing animals.
Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a body made up of health and food organisations aiming to tackle antibiotic resistance, said it has been clear for years that illegal imports were happening but the true scale is still not known.
He said: “Illegal imports are a concern, particularly if this means that antibiotics are being imported and used without a veterinary prescription. It’s particularly irresponsible to be importing high-priority critically important antibiotics illegally, or to be importing drugs that are banned from all veterinary use in the UK.”
The numbers seized are extremely small in comparison with the total number of veterinary drugs prescribed in the UK, but as some were uncovered during routine “spot checks”, there is no way of knowing how many illegal medicines are slipping through border controls.
Nunan added: “If The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has evidence that illegal imports of veterinary drugs are increasing, they should launch an investigation to determine the scale of the problem and to find out why this is happening, and how it can be stopped.”
One of the packages seized in 2017 contained enrofloxacin, not itself used in human medicine, but a class of antibiotics listed as high-priority critically important in human medicine.
The antibiotic, which is part of the fluoroquinolone family, is licensed for use in poultry in the UK, but a voluntary ban has been in place across the industry since 2016, though it is still widely available in other parts of the world.
A package seized in June last year contained doxycycline, another antibiotic that vets are avoiding prescribing where possible, to help tackle antibiotic resistance.
The British Veterinary Association president, James Russell, said even one medicine brought into the UK illegally is “one too many”.
“These are the high-priority critically important antimicrobials. We as a veterinary profession are working so hard to move away from those, and to protect those for human health.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat, and left unchecked could be one of the biggest threats to humanity by 2050. There’s a key role of veterinary surgeons, not just in the UK but everywhere, which is being the gatekeepers and the custodians of medicines, and we do that through responsible prescribing.”
Some drugs are more tightly restricted in food-producing animals to avoid them entering the human food chain. In some cases animals, for example milking cows, need to be taken out of the food chain while being treated – something that is usually tightly monitored by farmers and vets.
Defra denied there had been a rise in the amount of illegal veterinary medicines entering the UK and said the rise in seizures was down to a closer working relationship between the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and Border Force.
A Veterinary Medicines Directorate spokesperson said: “We work closely with the UK’s Border Force to ensure illegal veterinary medicines don’t enter the country. This includes briefing operational hubs across the UK to help them to better identify and seize illegal veterinary medicines at the border.
“It is this close working relationship that has led to a rise in the number of illegal veterinary medicines seized, and we continue to work hard alongside them to stamp out such criminal practices.”
Border Force said it was determined to crack down on illegal imports, and that officers were highly trained to detect smuggling.
It would not comment on the effectiveness of its spot checks or clarify how packages were inspected, citing security, but it said most checks were conducted according to risk levels or intelligence.
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