Food testing lab closure concerns safety expert

The work will be contracted-out to privately-run facilities

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The closure of Wales' only publicly-run food testing laboratory due to cuts mean councils may struggle to respond to another incident like the horsemeat scandal, a food safety expert has said.

Prof Hugh Pennington warned that relying on private laboratories could create problems in times of crisis.

Cardiff council said cuts had forced the closure but it would ensure public safety was maintained.

Eight other local authorities also use the laboratory.

It means the councils, like others around Wales, will contract-out the testing to privately-run facilities.

'Public interest'

But Prof Pennington, an expert on bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said: "If you don't have [a publicly-run lab] you could get into serious difficulties.

Tray of horsemeat 17 different beef products on sale in the UK were found to contain traces of horsemeat last year

"Like horsemeat, where something comes out of the blue and suddenly there's an enormous issue, the public want it resolved and you have to work out if there's a public health threat.

"You have to work out what the scale of the problem is and you need some sort of central authority working for the public to do that.

"You can't do that just by relying on outsourcing all your testing."

He added: "I understand why it's being done - lack of money - but on the other hand the public interest has to come too."

'Stark'

Cardiff council said it had reviewed all non-statutory services because it needed to save £48m this year.

A spokesman said: "The council explored a number of options to assess whether it was viable to keep the facility publicly-owned and despite efforts made unfortunately there wasn't a viable business plan for the facility, so a decision was made to remove the annual £200,000 subsidy as part of the council's agreed 2014 budget."

Prof Hugh Pennington says public labs can play a role in spotting potential food scandals

A Welsh Local Government Association spokesman added that it was "another stark example of how vital council services and facilities are disappearing at a rapid rate due to the drastic cuts being made to the local government budget in Wales".

During last year's horsemeat scandal 17 different beef products on sale in the UK were found to contain traces of horsemeat, while supermarkets including Tesco and Asda were forced to withdraw items from sale.

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