The juice of this apple is a British secret: But in the United States its chances of causing cancer would be public knowledge. Adam Sage examines two contrasting attitudes to freedom of information

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The Independent Online
LAST Wednesday, Radio 4 listeners woke to the jovial voice of Food Minister Nicholas Soames, boasting that his department was the most open in Whitehall. This frankness, he said, had inspired confidence among Britain's consumers, who knew they could trust the Government to tell them what was safe to eat.

His comments followed a report that high levels of a carcinogenic chemical, patulin, had been found in some brands of apple juice. The discovery, made last March, had been kept secret by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food until last week.

Surely, given Mr Soames's commitment to openness, this had been a mere oversight? No, said a spokeswoman for the ministry: it never intended to publish the report before next April. And will the brands that breached safety levels set by the World Health Organisation be named? After all, consumers are bound to want this information.

The spokeswoman clearly considered the question impudent, curtly dismissing it. 'It would be unfair to single out particular juices,' she said, adding: 'That would imply that no other juices are contaminated with patulin.'

In Britain, there is no Freedom of Information Act and no way of forcing the Government to disclose such details. This week, the Commons will debate two Private Members' Bills aimed at ending what critics call the culture of secrecy in Whitehall.

The Right to Know Bill, introduced by the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, Mark Fisher, would give British citizens the right to see personal documents relating, for instance, to social security, pensions and health, and ask for government files on a wide range of other subjects.

The second bill, promoted by Giles Radice, Labour MP for Durham North, is more specific, giving people the right to see reports drawn up by agencies such as the Medicines Control Agency, as well as pharmaceutical companies.

The need for such legislation is illustrated by an Independent on Sunday survey comparing the access of British citizens to information, with the rights available to their American counterparts

To compare, for example, the results of our inquiry about patulin in apple juice, we asked US federal authorities for a list of food products found to contain listeria over a six-month period. We received a swift reply providing the names of the foodstuffs and their manufacturers.

American citizens, it emerged, may also be able to find out about British firms - even when the information is secret here. Take, for example, a drugs factory run by the multinational Wellcome Foundation in Dartford, Kent. As with other pharmaceutical companies that want to export to the US, the plant is inspected by the US Food and Drug Administration and the findings are available under the US Freedom of Information Act.

A 1990 report, for instance, lists 13 'deficiencies'. It says the managers were 'polite and co-operative' and promised to 'take corrective actions'. In Britain, the plant is inspected by the Medicines Control Agency, but these reports are 'confidential - as are all such reports', said the Department of Health.

Campaigners say the contrast highlights fundamentally different philosophies of government. In the US, documents are released unless the authorities can show a good reason for keeping them secret; in Britain, they are confidential unless the Government chooses to disclose them.

In the US, many such reports are automatically put in the public domain. For instance, inspectors from the US Food and Drug Administration visited Mississippi Blood Services in Jackson, Mississippi, late in 1991 and found 'objectionable conditions and practices'. Untrained volunteers were carrying out medical tasks, files were completed inaccurately and no information about Aids was provided to donors.

Here, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health could barely disguise her indignation when asked to disclose a report, requested at random, on the North London Blood Transfusion Service. 'I don't think that's very likely,' she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. The department was prepared to confirm only that the service had a licence from the Medicines Control Agency.

According to Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, this example demonstates the absurdity of Whitehall secrecy. 'It's completely pointless,' he said.

This was also true of reports on car safety. For instance, under the US Freedom of Information Act, it is possible to obtain a lengthy file detailing a complaint by Geoffrey Roth about his Mercedes 190E, saying that the handbrake had failed on 21 March 1989, letting the car roll 'out of the garage, across the driveway and over a 14ft bank'.

Mr Roth, of Sedona, Arizona, demanded dollars 9,000 compensation and urged the company to recall and repair all the Mercedes 190Es it had sold, saying that they contained a design fault. On 8 May, the US arm of Mercedes-Benz wrote back to say it could find no evidence of a 'manufacturing defect' and suggesting that Mr Roth had been at fault by not leaving his vehicle in gear. Similar letters were sent by the firm on 16 May, 22 May, 7 June and 14 June.

In July, Mr Roth contacted the Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. After an extensive investigation, its inspectors announced that Mr Roth had been right and that there was a fault in all 190Es built between 1984 and 1987. Mercedes-Benz was forced to recall 96,541 cars.

In Britain, too, the firm urged owners to return their cars for handbrake repairs. But here, it is impossible to obtain government files on Mercedes-Benz. 'No,' said a spokeswoman for the Vehicle Inspectorate. 'We never release that sort of information.'

Another striking area of secrecy emerged when we tried to check up on the condition and testing of condoms. The British Standards Institution regularly inspects factories run by the London Rubber Company, makers of Durex, to which a seal of approval has been awarded. But it would not say what its inspectors had found. Inevitably, the US takes an altogether different approach. Asked what it discovered at the Safetex Corporation in Colonial Heights, Virginia, the US Food and Drug Administration provided a file half-an-inch thick expressing misgivings about the company's products. The firm's procedures would not discover if its condoms leaked, the report said, and some employees wore rings likely to rip the rubber.

But it was not all bad news for Safetex. The inspectors reported: 'No complaints relative to mouldy condoms.'

(Photograph omitted)

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