Food: How danger labels were slapped on eggs, cheese, carrots, milk - and meat

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The Independent Online
In the last 20 years, one food scare has followed another, with panic reaching a peak over beef. Glenda Cooper, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, follows the trail of poison.

"We do warn people now that sadly most of the egg production in this country is infected with salmonella." Thus the first big food scare of recent times was started in December 1988 by Edwina Currie, then a junior health minister.

It was the first of many. Ready-cooked poultry and soft cheeses were the next victims, with the listeria outbreak of 1989. The same year there was a botulism scare after one contaminated batch of hazelnut yoghurt was found.

In February 1993, high levels of patulin, a toxin occurring naturally in juice, were found in apple juice. And then in May 1995 the discovery of high organophosphate levels led to government advice to peel carrots before eating them.

Parents panicked in May 1996 when nine leading brands of baby milk were said to contain levels of phthalates, "gender bender" chemicals. The European Commission later concluded that there was no danger to babies. Then 20 people died in an outbreak of E. coli O157. It began in November 1996, and was traced to a butcher's shop. The Government ordered an inquiry, led by Professor Hugh Pennington, which called for sweeping changes in food safety. This week, he said the Government had not acted fast enough on his recommendations.

But the mother of all the scares is beef - specifically, the link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and new-variant Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease (v-CJD) in humans.

It was 1985 when scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) began to investigate - later named BSE - symptoms of a new disease in cattle on dairy farms. In 1988, the government set up a working party under Sir Richard Southwood to consider the significance of the BSE epidemic. Compulsory slaughter and incineration or burial of cattle showing symptoms followed. More than 170,000 cattle were diagnosed between 1987 and 1997, but estimates showed that up to one million with the disease but showing no symptom were used in human and animal food.

The government insisted that there was no danger to the public. Many scientists, meanwhile, quietly gave up beef.

In May 1990, John Gummer, then the minister of agriculture, infamously fed his daughter Cordelia a hamburger to prove its safety. In 1993, Kenneth Calman, then chief medical officer, issued a statement to calm fears. Douglas Hogg, Mr Gummer's replacement, continued to emphasise that British beef was safe to eat.

But in 1994 a handful of teenagers fell ill apparently of CJD, which usually affects only those over 60. The government denied a link to BSE.

On 20 March 1996, Stephen Dorrell, then secretary of state for health, announced that the most likely cause of v-CJD was exposure to BSE. A Europe-wide-ban on British beef followed, killing a pounds 500m industry almost overnight, and the government banned sales of specified material from cattle, sheep and goats. By August 1997 more than 1.7 million cattle had been slaughtered. Most recently, the Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, banned the sale of beef on the bone.

To date, 23 people have died of v-CJD, but scientists say it is too early to know whether thousands more will follow.