Belfast Telegraph

Birds' nests, rotting cow hide and exploding Indian butter: some of the illicit items seized by Customs at Northern Ireland airports

By Linda Stewart

What do £1,000 worth of birds' nests have in common with a rotting cow hide and exploding Indian butter?

They're all among some of the weird and wonderful items seized from passengers at Northern Ireland airports last year.

More than a tonne of illegal food was seized last year by Department of Agriculture (Dard) inspectors from travellers arriving at the two main airports.

Dried meats and dairy products were among the haul, but Dard inspectors also confiscated birds' nests worth more than £1,000, used to make the far eastern delicacy bird's nest soup.

The nests, built by swiftlets using their saliva and harvested from caves, fetch hundreds of pounds per kilo, said Dard senior inspector Sam Morrison.

For bird's nest soup to be authentic, it must be made from the nests of the swiftlet, a tiny bird found throughout south east Asia.

Instead of twigs and straw, the swiftlet makes its nest from strands of its saliva, which harden when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants, where they are served simmered in chicken broth.

"We had 270 seizures of imports last year, which is over a tonne of illegal meat and dairy products and plant products which were turned back," Mr Morrison said.

Inspectors typically encounter ghee (clarified butter) from India, dried meat or bushmeat from Africa and poultry products from China, and there is no guarantee that any of these products will have received veterinary clearance, as many animals are kept in backyards. "We have a couple of freezers where the foods are stored and we keep some samples for showing. We have a couple of seizures every day," Mr Morrison said.

Recently the inspectors came across pieces of rotting cow hide, imported from Nigeria, and they often find that bottles of ghee have burst all over clothes.

More than 1,029kg of illegal food products were seized in 2013.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has warned that bringing back exotic food and plants could bring disease and unwanted pests.

She said: "People travelling through local ports or airports should check the rules on food and plant imports before they leave home. Illegal goods will be seized and destroyed, and having to conduct these checks may delay passengers.

"Holidaymakers also risk prosecution and a fine. Epizootic diseases threaten our animal health status, and if a major disease enters the north of Ireland, trade and jobs will be at risk."

Personal imports of meat products and milk/dairy products are banned from most countries outside the EU. There are also strict controls on potatoes, plants, fish, shellfish, honey and certain fruit and vegetables.

For detailed information, call the portal inspection office on 028 9442 6822 or visit NI Direct at


The most heavily harvested nests are from the edible-nest swiftlet or white-nest and black-nest swiftlets. Most nests are built during the breeding season by the male swiftlet over 35 days in the shape of a shallow cup stuck to the cave wall. The nests are composed of interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement and have high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Belfast Telegraph


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