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 horse meat scandal, a leading scientist has warned.
Duncan Campbell, recent president of the Association of Public Analysts, told The Independent that 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 from 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 in this country, to ensure traceability and standards."
An estimated 10 million budget beef burgers have been taken off the shelves because of the discovery of traces of horse meat from unknown sources.
Dr Campbell, the public analyst for five million people in Yorkshire, said: "Local authorities are having to make cuts 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 FSA and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland deepened their investigations 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.
Two of its subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, supplied burgers with traces of equine DNA to five supermarket chains, including one product classed as being 29 per cent horse.
Companies in Spain or the Netherlands are thought to have supplied the meat.