REVIEW / Statistics that leave a bad taste in the mouth

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The Independent Culture
KUDU can get it. Pumas, cheetahs and oryxs get it. Mink, monkeys and mice get it. Even educated fleas get it, probably. But John Selwyn Gummer still doesn't get it. All the animals above, barring the Minister, have succumbed to some form of Spongiform Encephalopathy in recent years (we're not allowed to dissect the Minister to check). Nobody is quite sure how they fell ill, though in some cases it was because they'd been fed infected brain tissue in laboratories and in others it's suspected they had eaten recycled animal protein which contained the infectious agency. The uncertainty leaves most sentient beings a little anxious - after all we eat recycled animal protein too. But not Mr Gummer. A little snip of archive film showed his response to the last 'mad cow' scare. 'British Beef is safe to eat and I say, as a human being, my children eat it.'

You wondered what his response might be, as a human being, to the opening of Dispatches' (C4) report on continuing fears about BSE. Vicki Rimmer, a 16-year-old girl is dying of Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (the most common human form of the illness) despite the fact that she doesn't fall into any known categories of sufferers. The first sign of a problem was a bad school report complaining of lack of concentration. Now she is blind, deaf and speechless, the end of her ordinary life marked by the abrupt disappearence of doodles from a bedroom calender. Mr Gummer might say that a single case is insufficient evidence on which to start a food scare, and he would be right about that, but one can't help but hope he would now be a little less blithe about the risks.

In fact the spectacle this documentary presented was of rival groups fighting for possession of our ignorance. Professor Richard Lacey, the excitable Cassandra from the University of Leeds, who made something of a name for himself during the last scare, was back with his categorical statements. 'The only way she could have got this is by eating something,' he said. On the other hand, an official spokesman countered Dispatches' array of figures with a measured 'It isn't statistically significant'. Both parties are whistling in the dark for the moment but with one crucial difference - the penalty for believing the calmers, if they get it wrong, is rather more severe than that for believing the alarmers.

And the previous record of bland reassurance isn't very good. When the Conservatives entered office in 1979, they decided to allow the rendering industry, which makes animal feed products out of old carcasses, to regulate itself in future. Soon after, standards were lowered slightly, despite the knowledge that scrapie, the form the disease takes in sheep, was difficult to destroy even at high temperatures. At the time anyone who had questioned the wisdom of feeding herbivores with their composted companions would almost certainly have received one of those judicious ministry assurances. 'It wasn't unwise at the time,' one official said, in a mandarin phrase which is probably as close as you will get to a confession of error. Regulations have been tightened since the last scare but as the credits rolled I was hastily reviewing my contempt for tofu.

In America they are suffering from Mad Bull Disease. Or at least that's what On The Line (BBC 2) would have you believe. In an interesting documentary, nicely timed for the eve of Superbowl, it examined the corrupting effects of American sports-mania. Student athletes have recently been involved in many cases of rape and sexual assault and several are serving prison sentences, mildly bemused at the fact that their careers as untouchable campus heroes have been so abruptly curtailed.

There was nothing very surprising here - if anyone out there thought that the American locker-room was the natural environment for a well-adjusted psyche they need their head examining - but it was intriguing to see how effectively an ethical system based on aggression and winning at all costs can press the decency out of young men.