Is meat a rich source of protein packed with vitamins and minerals? Or is it a morally suspect, over-processed cocktail of growth hormones and fat? And just how healthy an alternative are fish and vegetables? Don't panic, here are the facts; 4 'Look at the Maasai - they eat loads of meat but don't suffer from diseases. Meat per se is not bad for you. It's what farmers in the West do to it that is the problem' 4 4 'Scrumping is a no-no; while the apples are still on the trees they could still be in their "quarantin e" period' 4
how are we to know what's good to eat? A current advertising campaign promoting meat shows two plates side by side, one with a portion of attractively glistening lean muscle on it - pork or beef - and the other with a pallid heap of cottage cheese or an impossible mountain of spinach. The advertisers have good news for everyone who has ever been driven mad by a smug vegetarian: meat, they claim, is richer by far in protein and minerals and lower in fat than the supposedly "healthy" choice.

It's possible to find champions and detractors for virtually every kind of food, but meat is the most contentious. Is it a rich, low-fat source of energy-giving, body-building protein laced with useful vitamins and minerals? Or is it a morally suspect, overprocessed cocktail of growth hormones and fat? The answer is, of course, it all depends. A grilled steak is a very different proposition to a deep-fried, battered meatball of dubious provenance.

Beef has been particularly controversial ever since links were suggested between BSE (mad cow disease) and CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), its human equivalent. Even senior members of the medical profession are giving up beef, the latest being Sir Bernard Tomlinson, architect of the NHS reforms. "The message is simple," says Richard Lacey, professor of medical microbiology at Leeds University, who also won't eat beef. "Beef is off. The terrifying thing is that CJD takes a minimum of 10 years to incubate, and the BSE scare only began in 1986. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of people could start to display symptoms."

If you're thinking of switching to European beef, don't. Spanish, French, Irish and Belgian beef and beef products, especially those made with offal, have been found to contain high levels of the banned growth hormone clenbuterol. And if the United States gets its way, which now seems likely, and American beef is imported into Europe, don't touch that either - American beef cattle are routinely treated with five different growth hormones including the controversial bovine somatotrophin (BST).

Lamb is OK. Hooray. Lambs escape the evils of factory farming for the simple reason that when lambs are intensively reared, they die. They do not adapt well to cramped living conditions or to the chemicals needed to help animals survive intensive farming. British lamb is free range.

Moving on to pigs, the most common drugs fed to them are growth promoters and antibiotics. Denmark has recently banned avoparcin, an antibiotic, from all livestock production. In Britain, it in still used for pigs and poultry. Denmark banned the substance after research conducted on humans and chickens showed that strains of enterococci, a common bacteria in the intestine, have become resistant to a human antibiotic with a similar structure to avoparcin. The Veterinary Products Committee considered the development of resistance to antibiotics in bacteria at a meeting earlier this year and concluded that therapeutic use - when the animal is ill - is acceptable, whereas blanket use is not. The problem is policing the livestock industry. A spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission said it is in the industry's interest to keep animals as healthy as possible.

From a nutritional standpoint, as far as the fat in pork goes, it depends on what the pig has been fed. Intensively farmed pigs are fed cereals and saturated fats which make the wrong sort of fat. Organic pigs, allowed to snuffle for roots, have a far higher proportion of their calories from unsaturated fats.

The main problem in poultry is the age-old one of salmonella, which is still present in very high proportions (about one third) of supermarket chickens and turkeys. It is possible to mass-produce chicken without salmonella poisoning - less than one per cent of Norwegian and Swedish chickens are contaminated. Avoiding salmonella is fairly simple: never stuff a supermarket chicken - the bacteria cling to the insides of the carcass. To thoroughly defrost an average-sized chicken takes two days at room temperature or three days in a fridge. If in doubt, always overcook.

Turkey is on offer in most supermarkets now at less than 30 pence per pound. "You have to ask yourself," says Professor Lacey, "if they are selling at that price, what kind of intensive rearing process is behind them."

In general, food poisoning from meat is on the increase: E Coli, botulism campylobacter, listeria (which is found in pigs as well as unpasteurised milk) ... But before you switch to tofu, following in the footsteps of celebs such as Joanna Lumley, Victoria Wood and kd lang, it's not all bad. Meat provides valuable proteins, vitamins and minerals in the diet and now, with leaner cuts of meat available in supermarkets, it is a much healthier option than it was a few years ago. The Meat and Livestock Commission produces glossy booklets in association with groups like the Family Heart Association and the Health Visitors Association to promote meat eating. The problem is that unless you can afford the inflated prices of the "only five per cent fat" and "extra lean" minces and chops in the supermarket then most meat is still far fattier than it was 50 years ago.

"Meat per se is not bad for you," says Professor Michael Crawford, director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney. "You only have to look at the last remaining hunter gatherers with a high meat diet, such as the Maasai and the Bushmen of southern Africa. They do not suffer from diseases associated with high meat diets of the West such as breast cancer and large bowel cancer. It is what farmers do to meat over here that is the problem. Meat has, unsurprisingly, got fattier since the European Commission insisted that 25 per cent of a carcass should be fat. In the days before electric lighting, beef tallow and other fats were used in candles. Today, the fats get into the food process. Butchers don't want to waste any part of it.

"If animals were allowed adequate exercise and to eat grass and flowers as they did before the Second World War, then the fat content of meat would go down significantly."

Vegetarian is not synonymous with low-fat, however. The recent revelation that Linda McCartney's burgers contained three times more fat than advertised did not surprise Professor Lacey. "Vegetarian products which mimic meat products, such as burgers and sausages need a lot of fat to bind the particles together. Vegetarians who eat fake burgers are obviously unhappy vegetarians." Indeed, even though the Vegetarian Society claims thousands of converts every week, many honest "vegetarians" admit to eating fish often, chicken occasionally and crispy bacon when they have hangovers.

One thing that should concern us, however, is that an organic diet appears to produce a healthier sperm count. A Danish study of people who live mainly on organic foods found the men had sperm counts nearly double the national average. "The number of sperm cells alive and able to fertilise are normally 50-55 million per millilitre but the organic men produced an average almost twice as high, similar to that of men two or three generations ago," said a spokesman from the Department of Occupational Medicine.

The trouble is, organic food is expensive. But it needn't be. Thanks to intensive farming, much farm land is lying idle under the EC's set- aside scheme. In Austria, and much of Scandinavia, farmers are offered up to pounds 200 per hectare to go organic. Britain has incentives under the Ministry of Agriculture's Organic Aid Scheme, but at pounds 70 per hectare for the first year, reducing to pounds 25 per hectare in years four and five, after which farmers get nothing, it is hardly worth it.

Perhaps the government is practising a sly form of population control.

dyed kippers and other red herrings

EVEN THOSE who turn their noses up at red meat will often eat fish - normally accepted as a healthy option.

Sea fish can safely be described as "free-range". Even flat bottom-feeders such as plaice and sole, which are now being fished out of a polluted North Sea with tumours, are not supposed to be any threat to humans as the tumours are removed during cleaning. The best fish, from a health point of view, are the oily ones such as mackerel and herring, which contain high amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids, now known to lower risk of heart disease. Tuna is also a good source of Omega 3, but the canning process removes most of the oils, so it is best to buy tuna fresh. Smoked fish such as kipper is harmless, but obviously bright yellow is not its natural colour.

Wild salmon and trout are also free range, but are prohibitively expensive. Other freshwater fish such as pike and carp come from slower-moving rivers and should usually be avoided as most British waterways contain high levels of pollutants. Halibut, salmon and trout, unless clearly labelled "wild", are likely to be farmed, especially if they are bought in supermarkets.

Farmed salmon are exposed to a number of drugs, including antibiotics and phosphorous compounds to get rid of lice which plague the fish when they are kept in cramped conditions. In addition, because they take only a fraction of the exercise a wild salmon would take in a lifetime, the fats in farmed salmon are useless calories and not the healthy Omega 3. The livid pink dye fed to salmon and trout could be unsafe for pregnant women because the dye is a vitamin A compound, high doses of which are known to cause birth defects. In addition, according to the latest Veterinary Medicines Directorate's sampling of fish, high levels of a rather nasty substance called Ivermectin were found in just over 10 per cent of the salmon tested. Ivermectin is banned from use in farmed salmon feed, but somehow, curiously, is found in the fish, and amounts have been increasing steadily over the years. However, according to the Directorate, it is only toxic in amounts far higher than those found in salmon.

Prawns are higher in protein than pork, chicken, beef, lamb and all other fish. They can cause stomach upsets if they have been badly handled during peeling, or if they have sat around at room temperature before freezing. Shell-on prawns are frozen straight after harvesting.

Mussels are filter-feeders and take in pollutants from the water around them. Much of the mussel's bad press, though, is historical, since the EU has now introduced fairly stringent regulations about where mussels can be harvested. The waters around the west coast of Scotland, where most of our mussels come from, are among the purest in Europe.

some pesticide with your parsnips?

IF the meat and the fish don't get you, there's always the veg. Carrots need to be peeled, topped and tailed as Maff advised in the spring, because of unacceptable concentrations of pesticides found in the skins and tops. Other root vegetables absorb and store pesticides in the same way, notably parsnips.

In the latest report from the working party on pesticide residues published in September, nearly half of all potatoes sampled contained residues of Aldicarb, a highly toxic insecticide which, although tests have not proved conclusive, is suspected of being able to mutate genes.

Onions and garlic are not appetising to bugs and other pests, are therefore not treated very much and tests found negligible amounts of residues in UK-grown onions.

Cauliflower, broccoli and green cabbage absorb little if any pesticide, and are considered amongst the most pesticide free of non-organic vegetables. Summer-grown lettuce is also given the all clear but if you buy a lettuce between November and May then it will contain higher levels of fungicide as lack of sunlightmakes lettuce particularly vulnerable to slugs and snails and is often liberally doused with chemicals.

Runner and broad beans, peas, marrow and asparagus appear to be among the safest vegetables. During the working party's sampling, only minuscule amounts of pesticide were found in these vegetables.

New regulations that require farmers to leave long gaps between the final spraying and harvest of apples and pears mean that by the time the fruit reaches the shops, the pesticide has been dissipated. This means, however, that scrumping, unless in an organic orchard is a no-no, because while the apples remain on the trees, they could still be in their "quarantine" period.

The committee found pesticide residues in most soft fruits, except wild blackberries.

Most fruit and vegetables grown within the EU are as safe if not safer than British-grown produce. A simple rule of thumb for the rest of the world is that the less developed the country, the more likely it is that cheaper and therefore older and less safe pesticides are used. But how dangerous are these pesticides, which have been blamed for increase in asthma, allergies and reduced sperm counts? The British Agrochemicals Association is, naturally, adamant that even when residues exceed recommended levels these are hundreds of times lower than is needed to get a reaction in humans.

Dr Tim Key, of the epidemiology unit at the John Radcliffe infirmary, Oxford, is currently engaged in a Europe-wide study of the links between diet and cancer. "There is in fact very little evidence that pesticides, in the levels found in food cause cancer. There could be a link between lindane, found in milk and butter during the winter when cows eat manufactured feed, and breast cancer, but that is very tenuous."

But, says Professor Crawford, the nutrient levels in mass-farmed vegetables are far lower than those in organic vegetables because of the nature of the fertilisers, which only add potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous to a worn-out soil.