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Food fraud publication delayed

The official report into the causes of the horsemeat scandal has been shelved until at least the autumn, prompting criticism that the government is neglecting the importance of food safety.

The report, announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 16 months ago, was to have been completed by the spring of 2014. It is expected to show the impact that spending cuts have had on the frontline enforcement and inspection in the food industry.

Sources suggest that the publication has been blocked due to government concerns that the public would be frightened by the idea that their food was still able to be interfered with by criminals.

Chris Elliott, a professor of food safety at Queen’s University Belfast has voiced his concerns, believing that the food sector has become an easy target for criminals, due to limited penalties and an insufficient examination process. He has also expressed the need for a new police force to combat food crime, insisting a dedicated unit staffed with senior police detectives is needed.

The horsemeat scandal, in which millions of ready meals, beef burgers and packs of mince were found to contain undeclared horsemeat, has been named one of the biggest food frauds of late.

Elliott, who lead the UK inquiry, is said to have given his final reports to the government several weeks ago. However, a cabinet reshuffle meant the information was blocked by the new environment secretary, Liz Truss.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, expressed his irritation at the horsemeat report not being released. “The government is nervous about it coming out because it reminds the European public of a disaster in our meat trade. It’s also embarrassing for the Conservatives because Elliott wants to toughen up regulation, which is against the current tide,” he said.

The shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle, commented on the failure to publish the report. “The horsemeat scandal and the recent Guardian investigation into the poultry industry exposed clear failings in the food supply chain and a lack of consumer protection. That’s why 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,” she said.

The report concluded that the food industry’s own audits were inadequate to protect the public and that unless audits were unannounced, they were of less importance. Elliott also shared with a conference of food experts in May that a senior civil servant had warned him that his report regarding the horsemeat scandal was so hard-hitting the government may try and bury it. This week, he declined to comment other than to say he was still waiting to hear on a publication date.

The recent investigation into the salmonella enteritidis outbreak has also caused concern that this too may cause reports to be buried or delayed. 156 cases have been reported to health officials, which may take precedence above the horsemeat conclusions.

A spokesperson for Defra, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the Elliott review would be published in due course, and explained that reasoning for not publishing prior: “The timing of the cabinet reshuffle meant that the new secretary needed time to consider the report properly before publication.”

The spokesperson later added: “The Elliott review will be published shortly, when it can be put before parliament. There has never been any attempt to block it.”

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