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Food standards? Whose standards?

Boz magazine, 58: 11, March 1999.

Brian J Ford

All life’s a game. Whether you have been playing away, struggling to keep your job, wrestling with the tax-man or dodging your spouse, the prospect of settling down to dinner afterwards, relaxed and urbane, is the perfect restorative. At least, it is if the food won’t get you. Food hazards have been increasing for the first time in human history. Salmonella is on the resurgence, with a million cases every year in Britain alone. There are newly discovered bacteria, like Campylobacter, which was not identified until 1974. There are new types of old friends, like E. coli O157, which acquired some extra — lethal — genes in the 1980’s and hasn’t looked back since.

With the memories of BSE firmly in mind, the government has little choice but move slowly towards the establishment of its Food Standards Agency. The basic idea is to offer unbiased conclusions and trustworthy opinions. At last, there’d be a public body to whom the public could turn. Its advice would be independent, and free from establishment pressures. Yes, well, that’s before GM food fell out of the cupboard. The public have heard scary stories of innocent scientists pilloried by their peers, and mutant vegetables, half plant, half animal, invading the supermarket shelves. If only we had the Food Standards Agency to guide us! I am not convinced. Unless we tread carefully, we shall end up with a lap-dog that snuggles up to commercial pressures and adds a further layer of propaganda to the confusing messages the public already have to endure. The proposals insist that the FSA should be:

So far it doesn’t look like that. The document on the Agency was drawn up by Philip James, head of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland. Might he be trustworthy? Well, I do recall him condemning Dr Putzai as ‘muddled’ when he was shown the door after announcing results from feeding potatoes to rats; but he was back on the BBC a few days ago saying what a fine chap Putzai really was. Thorkild Borg-Hansen of Denmark is an authority on food safety, and tells me that he has had Philip James on the phone speaking of “dear old Arpad” as though they were bosom friends. Dr Putzai may have had the world’s media on his side, but his results don’t impress me. Firstly, he fed the rats potato cell cultures. Potato is in the same family as the deadly nightshade, and the only reason spuds are edible is because they live in the dark, which stops them developing toxins. Cultures of potatoes are often rich in toxins, and they are going to do rats damage, whether they have been tampered with or not.

Secondly, he has never published the results. In science you need to see the work in print, and until he has a paper on the subject there’s nothing to argue about. The usual reason that stops people publishing is that they suspect their own research; I don’t expect that’s true here, though. Not only did Philip James reverse his story about Arpad Putzai, but he is said to be the front runner to chair the FSA. Come again? Since when did somebody draw up job specifications and then get the job? Having the former head of the Rowett running the agency would undermine its reputation for objectivity at a stroke. It’s a foolish proposition, and I hope Philip James removes himself from the running.

Meanwhile, the funding proposals suggest that retail outlets all pay the same fee to run the agency. The original figure in the gossip around Whitehall was a levy of 120 per outlet. This would be the same for corner shops (which are being starved by the high-profit supermarkets) as it would be for the supermarkets themselves. They say that Sainsbury’s, for example, would pay 50,000 a year — absolute peanuts to a company like them. So, why are the ministers recommending all this? Could it be that a junior minister for science is Lord Sainsbury? It has been said that the noble Lord put his hand in his pocket (or his wallet, more to the point) when the Labour Party wanted bankrolling. Appointing a commercial benefactor to a high office in government is a long-standing tradition, but not if he’s involved in decisions that dictate the future of his family.

Why the furore? It now seems that Greenpeace sent out the press releases that triggered the scares. People have recognised that public fear is a potent weapon for political pressure. The FSA could stop all this, of course. If it can recover its independence it could stop people playing games, and get back to the facts.

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