Angela Browning, the junior Agriculture Minister, told a Commons press conference that moves were being made towards publication of hygiene scores for slaughterhouses.
However, she warned that there was a matter of "commercial confidentiality" to be considered. When a comparison was drawn with yesterday's publication of the first primary school league tables, she said: "That didn't happen overnight."
She said that the system of abattoir checks, run by the Meat Hygiene Service, had been in operation for two years, and she wanted to make sure that "we have got it absolutely right" before moving to publication of league tables for abattoirs.
As for yesterday's leak of the confidential Association of Meat Inspectors (AMI) correspondence, Mrs Browning suggested that had come from the AMI itself, and, in a clear put-down, the minister added that the letters had been written by someone "in effect acting as a trade unionist for the meat inspectors."
She also said: "I myself have held 22 meetings with industry and officials in this period to discuss hygiene matters."
But another leak - this time to Liberal Democrat spokesman Paul Tyler - put a different gloss on those meetings. Leaked minutes of a meeting held on 23 January, and chaired by Mrs Browning, reported the minister as saying: "Although E.coli O157 is a dangerous pathogen, it poses no new sinister threat and can be prevented by good hygiene practice which Maff and the Department of Health had been promoting for many years."
Mrs Browning dismissed that leak as "just another piece of faff", although she was also reported to have said that many recommendations had been made and acted upon following a 1995 report on E.coli from the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food.
A report from Maff's Food Hygiene Division told Mrs Browning's committee that last November's E.coli outbreak in Lanarkshire had, by 18 January, produced 267 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.
Yesterday's leaked correspondence from the AMI also warned that the mechanism for slaughterhouse checking was inherently faulty - and that there was a similar, problem in the poultry industry.
Mrs Browning was told that the people responsible for "scoring" abattoir standards, official veterinary surgeons, were on short term renewable contracts, which could be "influenced" by the plant operators. That process, she was told, "could inhibit the degree of enforcement and encourage self- deception."
It also emerged last night that meat inspectors were threatened with knives and had their cars damaged while trying to enforce health laws, according to the former Government veterinary surgeon, Professor Bill Swann.
Countdown for a potential timebomb
November 1986: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy identified by the Central Veterinary Laboratory.
June 1988: Interim report from Southwood Committee proposes destruction of affected cattle and feed ban.
July 1993: 100,000th confirmed case of BSE announced.
April 1995: Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) created as an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
March 1996: Commons announcement that at least ten people might have died from a new type of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease as a result of eating infected beef. One week later, EU beef ban export imposed.
March 1996: Deadline for completion of MHS review of abattoir hygiene. "Unsatisfactory" first draft "revised and condensed".
June 1996: Florence agreement heralded as triumph for John Major, with promise that beef ban would be lifted by November. Still in force.
November 1996: E. coli outbreak in Scotland. By January, 267 confirmed cases and 17 deaths. Sir Hugh Pennington asked to inquire into the outbreak, but not shown full copy of MHS survey of abattoirs.
February 1997: Association of Meat Inspectors warns Ministry and MHS: "Our levels of enforcement in hygiene at present leave much to be desired."
March 1997: Leak of first draft of MHS report. John Major tells Commons: "The report was circulated to the people who needed to take action and I am advised by those people that they have implemented the action."Reuse content