Accusations that the official report into the horsemeat scandal has been delayed to protect ministers from political embarrassment have been strenuously denied.
Publication of the report by Professor Chris Elliott, of Queen’s University Belfast and a professor of food safety, was to take place during the summer but is now expected in the autumn.
There were suggestions on Friday night that ministers were afraid the conclusions of the report would leave the public “frightened” that crooks could easily circumvent food safety rules.
However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), dismissed the claim as “completely inaccurate”.
She said the reason for the delay was that a cabinet reshuffle meant there was too little time for the new Secretary of State for the Environment and her team to prepare fully shortly before the Parliamentary summer recess.
“The report will be published shortly,” said the spokeswoman. “It’s only right the new Ministerial team have the time to read the report and can consider it fully before it is published.
“[The Secretary of State] didn’t block it. It hasn’t been shelved. She just needs time to work on it. It’s only reasonable – it’s one of the big things that Defra are working on.”
Professor Elliot was commissioned by the government in June 2013 to compile the report on the integrity of the food supply chain following the scandal in which horsemeat was found to have replaced beef in burgers, lasagnes and other products.
His conclusions are believed to echo his initial findings last December when he said the food sector had become a soft touch for criminals. He accused the Food Standards Agency’s response of being too weak and said a new police force was needed to crack down on food crime.
With spending cuts believe to be highlighted in Professor Elliott’s report as hampering the food inspection and enforcement regime the conclusions are likely to be an embarrassment to the government.
Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle accused the government of failing consumers by delaying publication: “The government's continued delay in publishing the Elliott review is bad for consumers and bad for the industry."
"Consumers rightly deserve to know what they are eating, where it has been produced and that there is a robust response mechanism when serious incidents occur so that the regulator and the industry can deal with it effectively.
"The Government must show leadership to restore confidence in food industry and act on this review urgently before we face another food scandal.”