This little-known lab in the heart of Preston is at the centre of the horse meat scandal.
Working around the clock, ten scientists at Lancashire County Council’s Public Analysts’ Laboratory, on Riversway, Docklands, are currently helping the Food Standards Agency with their investigation into bogus beef.
While the scandal has meant longer shifts and weekend work to cope with demand, it just scratches the surface of the work they do. The lab is also responsible for salmonella testing, monitoring water supplies, asbestos in county council buildings, and tests into alcohol and food by Trading Standards.
Public analyst Andrew Smith has been ensuring the safety of what we eat and drink for 33 years, and says food scandals are nothing new.
Mr Smith said: “Back around the time of the industrial revolution, people were eating really quite appalling food.
“It was about increased demand and low cost, which is when you saw things like saw dust in bread. It was then a law was passed which introduced public analysts, and these days there is still a requirement for every local authority to have one.
“The horse meat testing is, of course, taking up a lot of time at the moment.
“We have got enough work now to last us now until the middle of March.
“We are spending an awful lot of time talking to businesses and the staff have been very dedicated in working long hours.
“But it is just a small part of what we do.”
The lab is a hive of activity at the moment, with the scientists fulfilling a variety of roles.
They have an enforcement role, testing samples sent to them by Trading Standards and the Food Standards Agency.
They also have a role with the county council in testing samples of food handed out in schools and old people’s homes.
All tests the lab had carried out had proved negative – until last week when preliminary samples from a cottage pie sent to 47 schools in Lancashire tested positive.
They are also working with local companies, ensuring the scandal doesn’t grind their businesses to a halt.
Hundreds of samples have already come over the counter since the scandal began.
Mr Smith said: “What we are looking for is horse meat DNA.
“Our preferred method is testing the DNA because it is more sensitive and more reliable.
“We take a small piece, extract the DNA, and amplify it, and then we put it through tests. The science behind it is quite amazing, and it has to be right. We can’t afford any mistakes.”
When he started as a junior worker in a lab in Manchester 33 years ago, there were 150 public analysts working across the UK.
Now, there are just 25 – a move which may well have contributed to horse meat content going undetected.
Mr Smith said: “It’s an expensive business and with cost-cutting things have merged, it’s an economy of scale. This horse meat thing could be partly down to that.
“Thankfully, we are very well supported here in what we do.
“As horse meat isn’t a food in this country, we have never looked for it as part of testing so we don’t know how long it has been in the food chain.
“There is no public health with eating it, although it is not what many of us would choose to eat.
“But I think now we need to do some work with Trading Standards on what is in the freezers and trying to find out how historic this problem is.
“It is always the vulnerable who are affected in cases like this, the people who can’t afford to buy meat from a butchers, and go for processed food instead.
“Our job is about protecting them.”
See tomorrow’s Evening Post for a look at Lancashire’s ethical food champions