Leading Article: Stop worrying and eat up your greens

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IN THE last century, people were worried about their bread being mixed with chalk, their milk with water and their sugar with sand. But at least people would have understood what was on the label, if that had been honestly described.

At the end of this century, we fear substances that we do not know. We are scared of dioxins in Belgian chickens. We worry about prions in our beef. And we have invested genetically modified food with images of cheap science-fiction horror that bear no relation to the science that is in fact involved.

First, the dioxins. As our technology editor pointed out yesterday, there are 210 of these organic compounds containing chlorine, and only 17 are toxic. Although they are always described as "cancer-causing", repeated studies have found only weak links with some rare forms of cancer. Animals can be killed by relatively small doses, but humans seem able to shake off the effects; the worst proven link is with a form of severe acne.

It can be said with some confidence that no one will die as a result of the contamination of some Belgian animal feed, and yet the activities of a farmer and his son in a small, flat country have thrown the entire European food market into turmoil. British supermarkets have cleared their shelves. The American authorities have banned all kinds of produce from all EU countries.

The explanation for this disproportionate response lies in the secretive behaviour of the Belgian government, which covered up the problem rather than explaining why it was not all that serious.

Secondly, however, we were right to worry about BSE. It was a crazy idea to feed cows' brains to herbivorous cows. But by the time we got to the beef-on-the-bone ban, the science was sufficiently well-understood for the Government to leave it to the consumer to decide.

Thirdly, GM food: funny that the Prince of Wales, Pundit by Appointment to Himself, publicly eats beef on the bone but wants to ban "Frankenstein foods". This is another unnecessary scare. GM foods are safe to eat; the trouble is that some of them are bad for the environment because they are designed to withstand stronger weedkillers and pesticides than are currently used.

But the approach of neither the Government nor Prince Charles is consistent. The watchwords should be simple: labelling and common sense. Let people know what they are eating and what the risks are, and let them decide. It is only secrecy, or its second cousin, arrogant scientific reassurance, which encourages a scare culture. Supermarkets and politicians will always overreact, because they are driven by public opinion, in turn influenced by journalistic sensationalism. But the more information consumers have, and the more understanding they develop, the less volatile food scares will be.

Common sense dictates that organic food is likely to be better than its intensively farmed equivalents - in taste if nothing else - and that small amounts of anything, including a pinch of dirt, do no harm.

The most important point is that hardly anyone is killed by poisonous residues in food. Yet, every year, there are thousands of avoidable deaths from diseases caused by poor diet. The "poisons" that matter are well- known: fat, sugar and salt. And the antidotes are equally well-known: more fruit and vegetables. True, this week it was shown that boiled carrots are better for you than raw ones. But, however they come, we need to eat more of them. Granny was right. Eat up your greens.