'Gaps' in food safety processes
Major gaps still exist in food processes intended to ensure consumer safety, the author of a Government-commissioned report following the horse meat scandal warned.
The growing list of product recalls due to contamination and the European-wide equine meat affair highlight the risks faced, Professor Chris Elliott said.
Last year's hard-hitting report concluded that the UK has high standards of food safety but that the scandal clearly showed criminal activity in the global food chain and said a specialist crime unit should be established.
Professor Elliott said: "The ability to protect the integrity of the food supply chain from 'farm to fork' is a massive challenge and one that is of utmost importance.
"While significant advances in science are helping reduce the risk of eating contaminated foods, the European-wide horse meat scandal and the growing list of food product recalls due to contamination have highlighted that major gaps still exist in ensuring the food we consume is authentic and safe."
December's review of Britain's food system said criminal networks saw the potential for "huge profits and low risks" and found "a worrying lack of knowledge" regarding the extent of their operations.
Professor Elliott's report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health, said Government and industry should make urgent efforts to "fill the knowledge gap" of the extent of any criminal activity within the UK food supply network.
His report said a new unit should be set up as a non-Home Office police force able to deal with "complex food crime perpetrated by highly organised and dangerous, potentially violent organised crime groups".
The horse meat scandal began in January last year when it emerged that frozen burgers supplied to several supermarkets including Tesco contained horse DNA.
Investigations found other beef products sold by retailers including lasagne and spaghetti bolognese were contaminated, while meals in schools and hospitals had to be withdrawn after it was found they contained horse meat.
Asda reported a test on its Smart Price corned beef had tested positive for very low levels of horse drug phenylbutazone, or bute, which is banned from the human food chain.
Officials said horse meat containing bute at very low levels presents a very low risk to human health.
Professor Elliott has organised a global conference of experts in Belfast to discuss measures to ensure supplies are authentic.
The academic from Queen's University Belfast (QUB) said: "Fortunately consumers in the UK and Ireland have access to perhaps the safest food in the world.
"Major scientific advancements are being made to help minimise risks to the food chain. Scientists at Queen's are at the forefront of these developments, working with the agri-food industry to develop the latest techniques to detect and deter food fraud.
"Many of these techniques will be discussed during the conference, which will build on the success of a similar event at Queen's in 2011."
A Defra spokesperson said: "As Professor Elliott has said, UK consumers have access to some of the safest food in the world, and we want to keep it that way.
"In the last year we have helped prevent food crime by increasing unannounced inspections of meat cutting plants and boosted funding to £2 million to support local authorities' food sampling programme. We await Professor Elliott's final recommendations on further action to protect the integrity of our food."