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Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority: The body which carries out checks on food and animal-related imports at Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich



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A giant river prawn with 16-inch limbs is not something you would expect to turn up on the Suffolk coast.

But it did for the team at Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority (SCPHA), which carries out health checks on food and animal-related imports into the Port of Felixstowe, Harwich International Port and ABP Port of Ipswich.

The giant prawn, also known as a macrobrachium rosenbergii, arrived at the Port of Felixstowe on May 4, Stars Wars Day, which was apt considering its alien-like appearance.

Felixstowe Docks. Picture: Mark Westley
Felixstowe Docks. Picture: Mark Westley

It was just one of between 20,000 to 30,000 'consignments' which come through the SCPHA team each year before being inspected and transported away to supermarkets and wholesalers, if they pass inspection.

The team, primarily based in the Port of Felixstowe, also verifies documents, rejects consignments which don't meet health standards and makes sure no infectious outbreaks spread beyond the ports.

The authority was officially formed in 1981, and today is part of East Suffolk Council.

The giant river prawn which passed its inspection earlier this month. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority
The giant river prawn which passed its inspection earlier this month. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority

The team is made up of around 140 staff members who have to monitor the around four million containers arriving into the three ports from across the world.

The authority checks around 200,000 documents per year as well.

For Richard Jacobs, port health manager, not only does SCPHA run a 'vital function', the ever-changing nature of the industry has kept him interested enough to stay in it for more than 30 years.

"If we think about how consumers tastes have changed, food stuffs have changed," he said.

Richard Jacobs, port health manager at the Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority
Richard Jacobs, port health manager at the Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority

"It's constantly evolving over the years.

"New products come along. New types of manufactured food stuffs.

"And the risks change so frequently, whether it be because of the seasons, food stuffs, how it's stored, how its transported.

Richard helps inspect a physical health examination of imported tuna chunks with a training group. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority
Richard helps inspect a physical health examination of imported tuna chunks with a training group. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority

"There's never a dull day."

How that change has manifested in one way, Richard said, was the public expecting a greater variety of produce on their supermarket shelves at all times of the year.

A consignment of sardines undergoes checks by a technical trainer. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority.
A consignment of sardines undergoes checks by a technical trainer. Picture: Suffolk Coastal Port Health Authority.

"If you think about fresh fruit, the traditional British strawberry – obviously associated with Wimbledon, but now (they're) consumed at Christmas time," he said.

"We can't grow them in the UK, so demand has changed to provide us with strawberries all year round.

"And they, obviously, are imported.

Felixstowe Docks. Picture: Mark Westley
Felixstowe Docks. Picture: Mark Westley

"It's just little things like that.

"The public's taste has changed and manufacturing has become more global."

But despite the changes, and Brexit creating 'new challenges', the day-to-day of the job has very much stayed the same.

"We are constantly monitoring goods that are being manifested at vessels, so we are trying to identify goods," Richard said.

"Alongside that, we are processing the information as it comes to us, so we have to undertake document checks on a number of products to ensure that they have the right health certificates, documentation to enable them to be imported.

"And then identifying any potential errors and calling a number for examination to ascertain if the product is actually what it says it is.

"Then physically sample them and send them off to the lab for further analysis."

Preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as Avian flu, was another issue Richard highlighted, although he said this was a joint operation between the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and was not something to 'get fixated on'.

He added: "The sheer volume of freight coming into the UK is huge.

"And one of the challenges is identifying the right goods to intervene on."

What were some of those goods, I ask?

"Wide and varied," Richard said.

"If you look at your supermarket shelf, anything you see there potentially could be a risk.

"It depends on what the product is, what country it comes from, what the particular growing season was.

He added: "We work closely with other bodies, including DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency, so as they identify risks, we can begin to act on those.

"It's such a broad remit we have."

Maybe not quite as broad as those prawns limbs though.