Food scares can harm health

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IT IS BECOMING difficult, in our risk averse society, to eat sensibly. Open the fridge and perils lurk on every shelf. If the salmonella in the eggs doesn't get you, the listeria in the cheese or the e coli in the pate surely will.

Food scares happen with such regularity that to act on all of them would seriously damage your diet. What is often forgotten is the opportunity cost of making a change. If, for example, you give up beef because of fears about BSE, and replace it with lamb, can you be sure you have made the healthier choice?

Even before the new fears about BSE in lamb, the answer was not straightforward. Lamb is a fattier meat than beef and we know fat is bad for the heart. Thus in exchanging beef for lamb we may have avoided a tiny risk of succumbing to CJD (we still do not know how big) and replaced it with a substantially larger risk of succumbing to heart disease.

The importance of food scares is in keeping the food industry on their toes and conscious of what they are doing. It was complacency about production methods that led to the BSE epidemic.

Complacency has led to the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, preservatives and colourings, taste enhancers and fat modifiers.

The best advice for consumers is eat a balanced diet, with the emphasis on fresh rather than processed food, with plenty of fruit and vegetables - and not to panic.