ANGAT, BULACAN, February 7, 2004 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - Police discovered yesterday three abandoned container vans loaded with tons of imported chicken leg quarters at a vacant lot in Barangay Tabok here.

A Customs official confirmed that the three vans are part of 19 refrigerated vans of chicken leg quarters smuggled out of the Batangas City port last Jan. 23, according to Dr. Jose Carillo, assistant provincial veterinarian. The shipment was worth a total of P50 million.

Senior Superintendent Felizardo Serapio, Bulacan police director, said residents discovered the three vans and immediately reported their presence to the police. A patrol unit of the Angat police checked the vans and found them loaded with chicken leg quarters from the United States and Canada.

The shipment of frozen chicken parts, packed in carton boxes, was partially thawed by the time the police inspected the vans. Police estimate that each van is loaded with P1.4 million worth of chicken leg quarters.

Investigators found no documents listing the consignee and destination of the cargo, bolstering suspicion that the three vans are among the 19 container vans earlier reported missing.

Carillo said that the chicken leg quarters appeared to still be in good condition, but they cannot yet determine if the shipment harbors the bird flu virus, which has devastated poultry farms in 10 Asian countries and killed 18 people.

Carillo said a Customs official confirmed that three vans were part of the shipment smuggled out of the Batangas City port.

Serapio said the seized chicken parts will be turned over to the Bureau of Customs for proper disposition.

Police were earlier believed to have recovered all 19 vans of the shipment in different places. Seven of the vans contained frozen chicken meat, while the rest were empty.

Five of the 19 vans were recovered in Batangas last Jan. 23, with their contents intact. The following day, Navotas policemen intercepted two men driving a tractor loaded with an empty container van along the C-3 Road in Dagat-dagatan.

The men said during interrogation that the van contained an undetermined quantity of chicken leg quarters, delivered to an undisclosed warehouse in Metro Manila.

On Jan. 25, police found five other refrigerated vans stored at the NAWACO warehouse located at the Baseco Compound in Port Area, Manila. The vans were empty.

Six other empty vans were found at the premises of the shipment’s consignee, Von Way Trading, at Novaliches in Quezon City on Jan. 27.

Two more vans were seized last Jan. 29 at a checkpoint in Taguig after the receipts presented by the drivers did not match the amount of chicken meat in the vans. The two drivers were not able to identify the owners of the shipment.

Customs officials said the chicken leg quarters may have already been distributed to commercial outlets owned by a Filipino-Chinese businessman operating a chain of grocery stores.

Customs Commissioner Antonio Bernardo said that they have no evidence linking Chinese-Filipino businessman Lucio Co to the smuggling, which has triggered a Senate inquiry into what measures the government is taking to prevent the spread of bird flu to the Philippines.

Bernardo said the shipment was smuggled because it was misdeclared as dry goods and not covered by the necessary import permit from the Department of Agriculture.

Documents indicate that the chicken leg quarters were imported from bird flu-free Canada and the United States. The ship carrying the shipment docked first in Taiwan before unloading the cargo at the Batangas port, where it was released despite a hold order from the National Meat Inspection Commission for quarantine inspection.

Sen. Robert Barbers alleged during a Senate hearing on the issue that Co was behind the smuggling, saying that the businessman "is a notorious importer-smuggler." Barbers said he based his allegations on the information he received from Customs insiders.

Bernardo said Co’s name was not mentioned in the importation documents but investigators are looking into the trader’s possible involvement.

He said that so far charges have been filed against nine Customs officials and employees assigned at the Batangas City port who were allegedly involved in the smuggling, and three private persons who handled the shipment.

Health officials have assured the public that there are no cases of bird flu in the country and that chicken meat infected with the bird flu virus is safe to eat, provided it is cooked properly. – With Ric Sapnu

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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