Ministry of Truth touch makes beef perfectly safe

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The Independent Online
Whitehall mandarins have wrought big changes on Britain in recent years. Now they are even changing the language.

Two departments yesterday added to a tide of "Newspeak" - the official language of Oceania in George Orwell's novel 1984 - and carried out cosmetic surgery on the meaning of "safe" and "good".

Both have now been redefined to suit the needs of the rule-makers, though with none of the eloquence and little of the style of Sir Humphrey, their fictional counterpart. At the Department of Health, Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, declared that "safe" actually meant there was some risk, albeit negligible. The latest edition of the Oxford Pocket Dictionary defines "safe" as "free of danger or injury" or "secure, not risky".

Meanwhile the Department of the Environment insisted that its classification of air quality as "good" on days when the concentration of ozone exceeded internationally accepted health guidelines was entirely correct.

Thus, when fellow Europeans are breathing air with ozone levels above 50 parts per billion they are told that air quality is "not good", while in Britain it is defined as "good".

Sir Kenneth's classification of risk, outlined in his annual report on public health, said "negligible" meant an adverse event occurring at a frequency below one per million. "Other words which can be used in this context are `remote' or `insignificant'," he said. "If the word `safe' is to be used, it must be seen to mean negligible, but should not imply no, or zero, risk."

So under the new Whitehall definition, eating beef is "safe" even though there may be some risk - a negligible one - linked with the new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, confirmed in 12 people to date.

Asked how "safe" could mean anything other than "zero risk", Sir Kenneth said: "I think that's only partially how it's defined. Safe to cross the road doesn't mean there's no risk in crossing the road. It's negligible, but there's a slim chance."

However, any latter-day Winston Smith toiling in the Ministry of Truth would find no career boost in writing a speech for a minister to stand up and declare that there was a "negligible risk" of catching a deadly disease from eating beef. He or she must reassure the voters, and the export industry, that beef is safe. Thus, in the best traditions of Newspeak and doublethink (the art of believing two conflicting ideas at once) the definition of safe has been changed.

So has "good". The Government's air quality bulletins for each type of pollutant (ozone, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides) give ranges of "very good", "good", "poor" and "very poor". High levels can aggravate asthma and breathing problems, and skin-related illnesses.

Friends of the Earth pointed out that for ozone, the main constituent of "summer smog", air quality is described as "good" unless hourly readings rise above 90 parts per billion. However, the World Health Organisation standard, accepted last month by the Government, is 50 parts per billion averaged over eight hours. This standard was exceeded on 90 per cent of days this year when the official ozone rating was described as "good".

Yet the department said there had been "poor" air quality at its hundreds of monitoring sites, which provide data hourly, on only 39 occasions.