Hogg ignored warnings of BSE food risk

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Three formal warnings about repeated breaches of food safety law and labelling guidelines were ignored by Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture.

The reports, in letters from officials in Northumberland, reveal a series of incidents in supermarkets, freezer shops, bakers, butchers, restaurants and hotels, all of which break legal requirements.

Of one set of samples taken, 10 per cent failed, including: meat incorrectly labelled as coming from BSE-free herds; "beef-free" sausages containing beef; lamb mince and take-away meals containing beef. Significant inaccuracies in record-keeping by farmers were also discovered.

The dossier, sent by the director of administration and county solicitor at Northumberland County Council, points out the scale of the problem and the lack of resources available to deal with it. None of the letters, sent in June, July and December last year, has been acknowledged.

The lack of response from Mr Hogg and his officials has been revealed just days after the minister was at the centre of a row over the suppression of a report linking conditions in British abbatoirs with the E. coli organism.

Yesterday Nigel Griffiths, Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, said: "Clearly the minister has lost control of the food safety issue when letters and warnings are being ignored. This might have put people's health at risk, and the public has a right to know that the description of the products they buy is accurate."

Dr Tim Lobstein, co-director, of the London-based Food Commission, said: "Anyone who put their head above the parapet of bad meat publicity at that time was running counter to the prevailing view at the ministry that consumer confidence had to be restored above all else. If butchers are putting beef into other products to get rid of it, then it is a deception that amounts to fraud."

The revelation coincided with a claim by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, that a government agency sought to cover up evidence of specified bovine material reaching butchers' shops.

The charge related to Birmingham City Council's survey of butchers' shops last April, when the Meat Hygiene Service found samples of suspected thymus - which should have been removed in abattoirs.

The MHS said it was impossible to identify the material. The council, however, sent a sample to the Heartlands hospital, which identified it within 24 hours.

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