THE possibility of a foot-and-mouth epidemic reclaiming its grip on the country is very real, according to a report published today.

The RSPCA slams the food industry for the way it transports livestock, warning that "the potential to spread disease within the UK remains a ticking time bomb".

Experts identified the movement of animals around the country as a major factor in the spread of foot-and-mouth last year.

Despite this evidence, the RSPCA found that only a handful of major supermarket chains were reviewing their animal transportation policies.

Only a small minority had policies limiting the distance an animal may be transported during its lifetime.

The RSPCA is calling on the Government to impose an eight-hour journey limit on all animal movements. They also want supermarkets to buy more animals from local abattoirs.

The charity's survey, which was carried out between November and February, revealed that only 30 per cent of major supermarkets were reviewing their policies on animal welfare during transport.

Dr Julia Wrathall, from the RSPCA's Farm Animals department, said the current system in place was failing animals.

"The movement restrictions put in place during the foot-and-mouth outbreak are slowly being relaxed and it is clear the Government should now introduce stricter permanent controls," she said.

The warnings come as the Government's decision not to hold a public inquiry into the outbreak were challenged in the High Court in London yesterday.

Ministers were accused of "forsaking thoroughness in the interests of speed and efficiency" by not holding a public inquiry.

Richard Lissack QC, representing a group of farmers and others hit by the epidemic, said that the "Lessons to be Learned" inquiry, which is being held in private by Dr Ian Anderson, was tainted.