The warning from the Soil Association is bound to stir up consumer anxiety over the safety ofimported foods. It could also serve to undermine consumer trust in food safety regulation in the UK.
The Soil Association, an organic certification body, claimed that government regulators are under "mounting pressure" from manufacturers and retailers to publish details what drug residuesit will test for in imported foods.
The removal of such a "key safeguard" would allowproducers in the source countries to switch to using other drugs, that will then end up aspotentially toxic residues in the foods, the association claimed.
The Veterinary Residues Committee (VRC) is meeting today to make a decision on whether to publish the details.
A spokesperson for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), which oversees the VRC, disputed the claims, noting that the committee is an independent advisory body and is not a regulator.
In particular, many banned substances are relatively stable and so would persist as residues, even if producers switched to another one to avoid detection.
"Publishing the programme early in the new year would therefore make little difference, as these substances will have already been applied," the spokesperson stated. "It is also a question of whether producers in very hot third countries have other options to the substances they use."
The spokesperson also denied that the testing programme was underfunded. The VRC's business case recommends £1.75m per annum, not the £2 million as quoted in the Soil Assocation's claims. The sum is to cover all surveillance to look for possible emerging issues - not just bannedsubstances.
"The money available is sufficient to cover all of the areas that the VRC considers priorities under its matrix ranking system for rating veterinary medicines and other substances," the spokesperson stated.
There is also a legal requirement for importers to bear the costs of imports surveillance, the spokesperson stated.A working group is currently "actively" considering charges for introduction by the end of 2007, the spokesperson said.
In its statement the Soil Association claimed that several committee members have previously expressing doubts about the wisdom of publishing the details of what drugs will be tested for in advance.
Richard Young, the association's policy adviser, said there are real dangers from some residues in food which may cause cancer and other health problems.
"The proposal to tell producers in advance which products and drugs will be tested, and which not, is totally unacceptable, because it will put British consumers at greaterrisk," he said.
The association said retailers have called for testing plans to be made public, because this will allow them to shape their own testing programmes in the light of the committee's expertopinion. The Soil Association said that if this happens the industry could end up focusing too heavily on certain narrow problem areas, while many other toxic residues in food pass unnoticed.
The call for the publishing of testing plans is due to industry's concerns over the VRC's decisionin 2004 to name the brand and the retailer when issuing alerts about foods found to be contaminated withillegal or high levels of drug residues. For all other residue testing, the information is kept confidential.
For example, in 2004, the VRC cited Morrison's own brand salmon fillets for having residues of malachite green,a banned chemical. In 2005, the VRC named Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Kwik Save, Holland & Barrett and DunnesStores in issuing a report on a honey survey that found chemical contamination, which was likely to have derived from the capgaskets in jars.
"In retaliation, most of the food industry is refusing to pass on important details of their own drug-residue testing which the regulators have requested, despite assurances that the identity of those supplying information would not bedisclosed," the Soil Association claimed. "In the last two years, only two supermarkets have responded positively, while there has been no assistance at all from the catering trade, food manufacturers orimporters."
The Soil Association claimed that regulators need information from the food industry because the government scheme for testing imported foodis chronically underfunded. The VRC says £2 million pounds a year is needed for the testingprogramme, but Defra has cut funding to around £900,000, the association claimed.
As a result in 2006 only seven types of imported food were tested, and three of these for just one drugtype, the association claimed. There was no testing at all of imported eggs, beef, lamb, pork, bacon, milk or butter, and no samples were collected directly from the cateringtrade, the organisation said.
"The government has cut funding and the food industry is not cooperating," Youngstated. "We recognise that the VRC is in a very difficult position and attempting to do the best it can in the circumstances. However, government testing of imports is so woefully inadequate, particularly in the case of food from the catering trade, that the very last thing the committee should do is to give in to pressure. This would only make it easier for dangerous drugs to enter the food chain undetected."
In the UK the testing for veterinary residues in food comes under two schemes. The main nationalsurveillance scheme is limited to testing UK produce only. The smaller non-statutory scheme isfocused mainly on imports.
The testing programme for the national surveillance scheme is largely set by EU legislation andis funded through a levy on British farmers. The VRC has discretion over which foods should betested and which chemicals looked for under the non-statutory scheme, which is funded by the government.
The first two years after the VRC was established in 2001, it published its surveillance plans in advance.The government body decided to withhold this information in subsequent years.
"The very limited nature of the testing means that, if the plans are published in advance, it will be relatively easy for farmers in other countries producing for the UK market to avoid the use of the drugs on the testingprogramme," the Soil Association claimed, citing concerns voiced by VRC members at theagency's meetings. "This is because farmers have access to a range of different drugs to treat most disease problems."
In relation to fund the association cites VRC estimates last year that £2 million is needed to run thetesting programme for imports.
"It is understood that the overall cost of the scheme has remained at approximately £1million since 1998 with no increases for inflation and a10 per cent cut in 2006," the Soil Assocation stated.
The organisation noted that the main surveillance scheme, which tests for residues in British produce only, costsabout £4 million a year.
In 2006, the VRC undertook a brand-naming survey of imported prawns. The preliminary results show that 16 of 156 samples,or 10 per cent, of imported crustaceans had residues of nitrofurans, a group of banned toxic chemicals. The contaminated crustaceans were imported from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Thailand.