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LONDON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Supermarkets and other food sellers should be held criminally liable if they sell mislabelled meat to customers, according to a government-commissioned study on Thursday launched in the wake of a horsemeat scandal.
In an interim report, Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University Belfast, said the UK food sector was at risk of being infiltrated by criminals looking for huge profits.
He said the 188 billion pound ($310 billion) food and drinks industry was a "soft touch for criminals at the moment" with a worrying lack of knowledge about the extent of criminal activity in the industry and little chance of offenders being detected.
Elliott called for the establishment of a food crime unit to prevent fraud through increased intelligence-gathering, testing, and coordinating with other government departments.
"I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry and thus consumers are currently vulnerable," Elliott said in his report.
Elliott was commissioned by the government in June to look at any weaknesses in the food supply chain in Britain after the discovery in January of horsemeat sold as beef in frozen burgers and lasagnas in British and Irish supermarkets, including those run by market leader Tesco.
The scandal raised questions about the safety of the European food supply supply.
Elliott, finding regulators had struggled to keep up with the complexity of the chain, said there should be zero tolerance over food fraud.
He outlined a series of ways that organised criminals can profit from the food chain due to inadequate enforcement of regulations. Examples included substituting fish with a cheaper species and adulterating products with other species.
"If meat is labelled as low-fat beef from England suitable for home freezing, it should be accepted by its sellers that they will be considered to be dishonest and criminally liable if it is not beef but is meat from some other animal," he said.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), speaking on behalf the food industry, said the Elliott review set out some useful recommendations for addressing areas of weakness and criminal behaviour and looked forward to working together on this issue.
BRC Director General Helen Dickinson said major retailers had addressed many of the issues raised in the report since the horsemeat scandal, building on existing controls on safety and increasing testing.
"Retailers have reviewed and revised their supply chains, improved the way they audit their suppliers, targeted testing and worked with the BRC and industry partners to improve the exchange of intelligence," Dickinson said in a statement.
Elliott's final report with more detailed recommendations will be published next year.