A NATIONAL food crime prevention network which involves unannounced audits and a zero-tolerance approach will help protect consumers from any more incidents like the horse meat scandal, a government-commissioned report says.

Professor Chris Elliott is calling for a "robust, ­effective" Food Crime Unit to protect the industry and consumers from ­criminal activity and support better links with food crime agencies.

And he said consumers must be put first by ensuring that their needs in relation to food safety and food crime prevention are the "top priority".

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Mr Elliott said the UK food industry was "very competitive and there is a constant drive to reduce costs and maximise profits". But he added: "Consumers must be able to trust that the food they consume is what it claims to be."

He said that while all consumers were at risk from food fraud, lower income groups spent a higher proportion of their income on food, particularly processed foods, which were more susceptible to fraud.

And he said: "Some consumers are at risk if they have to rely on others for food preparation.

"Recent surveys by local authorities such as Leicester City Council, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and West Sussex, and the consumer organisation Which? have shown that consumers using fast food outlets in inner city areas are often buying food which is not what it claims to be.

"In some cases the evidence suggests that problems arose because of unintentional labelling mistakes, but there is a concern that other fast food outlets may have been sourcing cheaper meat which increased the risk of food fraud. "

Professor Elliott said buying policies, particularly within some of the larger retailers, were "a matter of concern". He said: "The review cautions against procurement of goods for less than the recognised reasonable price, based on market knowledge