So how safe is food we eat?

A PUBLIC health crisis was predicted last night after a leading North scientist warned there weren’t enough experts to monitor contaminated food.

A PUBLIC health crisis was predicted last night after a leading North scientist warned there weren’t enough experts to monitor contaminated food.

Alan Richards, Durham County Council’s head of scientific services, who is president of the Association of Public Analysts (APA), said membership of the group and the number of food testing laboratories had both halved.

He said the drop in analysts, which test food during food poisoning outbreaks and routinely monitor the food supply for contaminated and even counterfeit products, contrasted starkly with Government pledges on nutrition and food labelling.

The Food Standards Agency has now agreed to meet the APA, but last night consumer experts said they feared the industry had already reached “breaking point”.

Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said the food industry’s major producers could be trusted to supply food that was safe, but Berwick MP Alan Beith said the industry could not be allowed to regulate itself.

And Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, said it would be a “disaster” if the analysts were allowed to fade out of existence.

Mr Richards said the number of testing labs had almost halved in the past 50 years to 17 in England, with two in the North-East, in Durham and Newcastle. In the past 14 years he said the number of qualified public analysts had fallen from 80 to 40.

He said: “The Government has nutrition and food labelling high on the political agenda, but I’ve been very concerned for a number of years about the reduction in numbers of public analyst laboratories which carry out regular checks. The number has almost halved in the last 50 years.

“Now I am more worried about the reducing numbers of qualified public analysts to carry out the work. Public analysts hold a unique combination of qualifications in the analysis of food, and the law relating to food,” said Mr Richards.

“Since my appointment 14 years ago, the number of qualified public analysts has reduced from 80 to only 40. That’s a big reduction.”

A Food Standards Agency spokesman last night said they would be holding a workshop with the APA following the conference, and planned to introduce a number of specialist laboratories around the country that would be accessible to all local authorities.

Jeanette Longfield, coordinator for Sustain, said: “We’re almost at a critical point. If you don’t have a decent network of public analysts, how on earth are we going to know if the food we’re eating is safe?

She said testing for dangerous additives and pesticides was becoming more complex, and the rise of GM produce and imported goods meant analysts now had much more to protect the public against.

Last night Lib Dem Mr Beith said: “The reduction in the number of analysts is alarming, in view of the many calls on their services, which look like increasing, rather than decreasing in the future.

“Food safety cannot be left to the food industry alone. There are also many more occasions when toxic substances need to be analysed by their service, putting them under increasing strain.”

But Conservative Mr Atkinson said: “The quality of our food has never been better and the whole food chain is heavily regulated. It’s much more rare for things to go wrong and these big companies face huge penalties. The large companies are meticulous – if you’re a major supplier for Tesco you would be mad to poison Tesco customers.

“Times have moved on from when there were multifarious small food producers. Clearly we would want to see this group looking at how they can change things and adapt to modern circumstances.”

Comment: Page 10

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