Patulin, a naturally-occurring toxin produced by mould, has caused cancers, tumours and liver damage in rats. It is said to be between 57 and 400 times more toxic than the pesticide Alar, the subject of another recent food scare involving apples.
Five out of 32 samples tested for the ministry last March showed levels above the World Health Organisation standard of 50 parts per billion. One was more than eight times higher.
However, the details were only released when John Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture, met consumer groups informally last week. His disclosure was apparently prompted by newspaper inquiries.
The ministry's stance was yesterday condemned by John Beish on, director of the Consumers' Association, as a 'blatant disregard for the consumer's right to know (which) makes a mockery of the Prime Minister's commitment to open government'. The public should have been told as soon as the raised levels of patulin were discovered, he said.
His criticisms were echoed by the National Consumer Council and Parents for Safe Food, whose director, Tim Lang, criticised the 'institutional collusion' between the ministry and the food industry. Critics called for an independent food safety agency to protect consumers' interests.
The fruit juice industry was told of the findings last July and agreed to tighten up its testing procedures for patulin and bring levels down as low as 'technologically possible'. The ministry refuses to name the companies whose products breached the WHO limits.
A spokeswoman said medical experts had advised that there was no danger to the public. 'Are the critics saying that every time a level is found above a certain guideline we should immediately rush into print with all the details of it?'
In the Commons, the Government faced an emergency question from Labour, which accused it of a 'shameless cover-up' and said the information should have been made public and toxic juice taken off shelves.
Nicholas Soames, the food minister, accused Labour of 'ridiculous and idiotic scaremongering'.
The British Soft Drinks Association has been advised that a person weighing 70kg (11st) would have to drink 10 litres of juice containing more than 50 parts per billion of patulin a week 'for a period of time' before there was damage to health. For children, smaller amounts would carry a risk.
About 100 million litres of apple juice are sold each year in the UK - less than two litres per person.
The decision not to alert the public last summer was taken on advice from the Department of Health's toxicity committee and with the backing of the Food Advisory Committee, which includes consumer representatives.
Jill Moore, a member of the advisory committee and chairman of the National Consumer Council's food safety policy committee, said patulin had been detected by routine food surveillance but 'at the time it didn't seem a very big problem'. On the basis of advice from the toxicity committee, she was 'quite confident that we were acting sensibly and responsibly'.
Mrs Moore added: 'I agree absolutely with openness but I think the ministry is right to balance the risk of panic and people stopping buying apple juice. However, with hindsight it was probably wrong not to disclose it last year. When it gets out in this way it causes a much bigger impact. If it had been published last summer it would probably have been a small item in the news in brief.'
The controversy has reopened the issue of whether the ministry can represent both consumers and food producers. Critics have long accused it of an 'incestuous' relationship with industry.
Leading article, page 24Reuse content