The number of trained local scientists who check food safety in Britain has halved in a decade, increasing the chances that Britain will see a repeat of the horsemeat scandal, a leading scientist has warned.
Duncan Campbell, recent president of the Association of Public Analysts, said local authority cost cutting had badly damaged the network of laboratories where scientists test samples for trading standards departments.
The number of public analyst laboratories has fallen from 31 in 2000 to 17 now, while the number of analysts themselves is down 61 to 32, according to Dr Campbell.
At the same time, figures from the Unison trade union show that all inspections carried out by trading standards – including food - have fallen by 29 per cent, or 813, in the two years to 2010/11.
Mary Creagh, the Labour Shadow Environment Secretary suggested in the Commons yesterday that cuts to trading standards departments could have made the contamination of burgers "more widespread and less likely to be detected".
The Environment Minister, David Heath, told her: "It is very important neither you, nor anyone else, talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are of a very high level.
"Because something has been discovered in Ireland, which is serious, which may lead to criminal proceedings, does not undermine the very serious efforts which are taken by retailers, by processors and by producers in this country, to ensure traceability and standards."
An estimated 10 million budget beefburgers have been taken off the shelves of supermarkets because of the discovery of traces of horse meat, from unknown sources.
Warning such scandals might become more common, Dr Campbell, the public analyst for 5 million people in Yorkshire, told The Independent: “Local authorities are having to make cuts to essential services and trading standards are well down the list [of priorities].
“In the long-term, the expertise and the capability of public analyst laboratories will be lost and problems like the one we have seen with horse meat in burgers will continue and possibly increase.”
He questioned the Food Standards Agency’s and Government’s assurances that the burgers did not pose a safety risk, saying the meat could have come from horses that were either diseased or treated with veterinary medicines harmful to humans.
The Food Standards Agency and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland deepened their investigations into the adulteration yesterday.
The company at the centre of the scandal, ABP Food Group, one of the biggest food processors in Europe, promised to adopt DNA testing for horse to prevent the problem occurring in future.
Two of its subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, supplied beef burgers with traces of equine DNA to five supermarket chains, including one product classed as 29 per cent horse.
Traces of horse DNA were also found in beef products supplied by Liffey Foods.
As the Independent reported, companies in Spain or the Netherlands are thought to have supplied the meat.
Tummy trouble: Other food contamination scares
600 processed foods were removed from the shelves in 2005 as they were contaminated with the illegal red food dye Sudan 1. The carcinogen was first discovered in Crosse & Blackwell Worcester sauce.
Salmonella in chocolate
In 2006, 56 people fell ill after eating Dairy Milk infected with salmonella. One pensioner died. Cadbury discovered a leaking waste-water pipe had infected a chocolate mix at its factory.
The worst recorded outbreak of E.coli was reported in 1996 in Scotland. Twenty-one people died and more than 400 people were infected after eating contaminated meat supplied by a butcher’s shop in Wishaw, Lanarkshire.
Beef in chicken
The Independent revealed in 2009 how Spanish and Dutch suppliers were bulking up chicken imported into the UK with cheaper protein from beef bones and gristle. The problem was only spotted with sophisticated tests.