Chinese chicken is being illegally smuggled into Europe, increasing the risk of a human bird flu pandemic.

European Union customs authorities have been put on alert after the deception was detected last year. Since January last year 21 consignments of Chinese frozen uncooked poultry have been intercepted. Such meat is banned in the EU because of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain and other diseases rife in China.

“The risks in relation to avian flu are an example of the necessity for strong measures to ensure that imports comply fully with sanitary and veterinary requirements,” said Markos Kyprianou, the European health commissioner. “The commission is alert to all potential sources, including illegal imports.”

“This is fraud,” said Jorg Wohajn, a spokesman for Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud arm, which is co-ordinating efforts to crack down on the trade. “But there is also an animal and human safety aspect.”

There are two variants of the trade. One involves using fake papers claiming that the meat comes from another country, typically Brazil. The other involves putting boxes of poultry in consignments of legal vegetables. Scanning a container by X-ray reveals the problem but the fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated. Slovenian authorities seized packets of poultry last year that had been hidden beneath same-sized packets of broccoli and garlic. They could be found only by manual search.

The Chinese authorities have denied giving approval to the shipments and pledged to crack down on them. There are no figures available on the extent of the trade. The EU imported 557,000 tonnes of poultry last year, mainly from Brazil and Thailand.

Several European member states have declared that the threat of bird flu has receded. Cases have fallen from 100 a week in February to about five a week. However, that reflects the fact that migratory birds are nesting: when they move again later in the year the risk will grow [nonsense].

Washington also gave warning this month that illegally imported pets could bring bird flu to the US. In 2004 two crested hawk eagles carrying the virulent strain of the H5N1 bird flu virus were seized from a Thai passenger at Brussels airport.

Bird smugglers deepen threat of human flu crisis