Food Scares and Labelling

By Rose, Ted | Contemporary Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Food Scares and Labelling

Rose, Ted, Contemporary Review

Food - one subject that is of fundamental concern to all of us. In famine ravaged, war torn central Africa or Serbia, that concern is simply a desperate need to find something, anything to eat. For those dining out in any one of the thousands of restaurants of the European Community, it becomes the search for novel, mutually enhancing mixtures of flavours and textures, attractively presented.

In Britain we can afford the luxury of re-focusing our concerns away from our own empty stomachs towards the welfare of animals, or pesticide residues, or the maintenance of the quality of the agricultural environment. Our freedom of choice may be expressed in demand for organically grown food, vegetarianism, or health foods. Our healthy eating concepts go beyond the simple assuaging of hunger. We rely on labels to tell us more than simply: rice, beef or tomato.

Yet against all this are arranged all sorts of contradictions. If we were to demand exclusively organic food we would be unable to grow enough. Anthropomorphic views of animal welfare do not always correspond to the response of the animals themselves. Animals that are well treated, in their terms, flourish. Otherwise they do not.

A philosophical chicken in a battery cage might well take the view that, ad lib food, complete freedom from debilitating parasites and the total relief from bullying or fear of foxes is an excellent trade-off against living in a cage with plenty of company and permanent summer. If she doesn't itch she doesn't (perhaps) feel the need for a dust bath. The problem is that, although she may be far more prolific in producing eggs, the eggs themselves taste of cardboard. Ah, taste! There's the rub. Our fears about being poisoned by E.Coli, Salmonella or of contracting tuberculosis, glandular fever or Creutzfeldt- Jakob's Disease (CJD), are reflected in authorities' demands for all food to be controlled, pasteurised, off the bone, bland, tasteless, homogenised.

The more affluent sections of society are steadily expressing their preferences both to eat out more frequently and buy their fresh food direct from farmers' markets. In contrast, thousands of school children fail to take sufficient exercise and are brought up on a diet of crisps, hamburgers, Coca Cola and ice cream: high in fat, salt, and additives, low in fibre and essential minerals, totally devoid of fruit and vegetables.

Should this be viewed as confusion, or rich natural diversity?

Certainly, we need some monitoring and regulation of the food chain; how much of that is empire building, political posturing or sheer panic?

Eggs are the perfect starter culture for the growth of virtually every animal form. That is equally true for humans or Salmonella: Mrs Currie didn't have to destroy an industry in order to be seen doing something when she was a minister in Mrs Thatcher's Government.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) is a disease promoted by man feeding animal remains to ruminants and has brought the ruminant feed industry into disgrace. However, no absolute proof has emerged of the direct link between CJD in humans and BSE without some form of catalyst. Mercifully, very few people have died of CJD (though only one would be enough for that individual, friends and family). Indeed, more people die in the bath each year. Simple logic would indicate that if there were a direct link, thousands of us should be affected by now. So why spend millions of pounds scaring us and decimating yet another section of the food industry? What sense is there in the Labour Government's banning the sale of beef on the bone, when it all had to start on the bone anyway? Why freedom of choice with cigarettes, but not beef? This surely is completely different from a clear need to supervise abattoirs and butchers' shops: E coli is a proven killer.

Now we have genetically modified (GM) foods to worry about, or not. The march of scientific discovery is itself an adventure which is by turns exciting, disappointing, surprising, amazing and yes, frightening. …

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