Tories close ranks over 'timebomb' in abattoirs

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A warning that there was a "potential timebomb" of declining standards in abattoirs brought a bitter reaction from ministers yesterday. John Major and colleagues closed ranks to attack the messenger, the Association of Meat Inspectors, who told the Ministry of Agriculture that "faecal contamination" was becoming "an acceptable infringement of regulations".

Forty-five employees of the Meat Hygiene Service - MAFF's inspection agency - have been disciplined, and three dismissed, for failing to ensure full compliance with the rules to minimise the risk of mad cow disease.

Correspondence leaked to Labour showed that three weeks before last Thursday's assurance from the Prime Minister that action had been taken to clean up the abattoirs, Peter Comrie, the general secretary of the AMI warned the Ministry of Agriculture: "Our levels of enforcement in hygiene at present leave much to be desired."

Angela Browning, the junior minister, was told: "Present legislation is adequate to improve hygiene but the will to enforce is sadly lacking. Faecal contamination, which can lead to E. coli, needs to be far more rigorously controlled."

When Tony Blair raised the charge in Commons questions, Mr Major said: "I am surprised, because it is the AMI themselves who are responsible for the enforcement of hygiene rules." Mr Blair said the leaked letters showed that, contrary to what the House had been told last week, contamination was getting worse, and he called for an inquiry and report to MPs, which was accepted by the Prime Minister.

Later, Mrs Browning accused the AMI of leaking its own confidential correspondence. She also said she had had "22 meetings with industry and officials ... to discuss hygiene".

But another leak of minutes of a meeting on 23 January reported her saying that although E. coli O 157 was a dangerous pathogen, it posed no new sinister threat.

Hygiene league, page 7