We don't believe our food is safe

It's no wonder that public confidence in what we eat has plummeted to an all-time low, writes Joanna Blythman
Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIRST it was just poultry and eggs that we had to avoid. Now it's pork and beef, and a growing list of seemingly innocuous Belgian foods, like chocolate truffles and croissants, which are being removed from supermarket shelves following the latest European scare.

This scandal, caused by a Flemish firm selling to farms animal feed contaminated by dioxins, and kept secret by Belgian politicians in the know, is part of a tradition of European agricultural disasters. There was Spain's record on illegal hormones in meat; there was the case of the 400 Spaniards who died after eating contaminated cooking oil. Let's not forget the antifreeze in Austrian wine, or Italy, the country where boys grew breasts after eating veal.

Consumers in this country would feel comforted if Britain were ringfenced to avoid such disasters. But the UK presided over the mother of all food disasters - BSE. It's now 10 years since Edwina Currie found her salmonella eggs, and even longer since Professor Richard Lacey warned about the listeria bacteria he found in 25 per cent of supermarkets' ready meals. Four years ago, the government had to issue health warnings about UK carrots after tests revealed they might contain organophosphates residues way over the "acceptable daily limit". The following year, apples got the same "danger" tag. By 1997, deaths from a new, virulent strain of the familiar E. coli bacteria, (0157), were attributed to the condition of animals being transported to slaughter, and to unhygenic practices in butchers' shops.

At the same time, repeated surveys underlined the food poisoning potential of British poultry - anything between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of birds at point of sale were, and still are, contaminated by pathogenic bacteria, capable of causing serious illness and even death.

So what are we to make of these food fiascos? Consumer faith in the safety of food has dropped to an all-time low, as has public confidence in the food and farming regulators. The jury is still out on the validity of public fears over human health risk attached to eating GM foods. But the chance of boycotting GM foods seems slight now that Roundup Ready GM soya is turning up, illegally and unlabelled, in foods such as Tesco's pizzas.

There are those, such as Ian Gardiner, policy director at the National Farmers' Union, who think we should be phlegmatic. "Like any industry [this] is run by human beings who make errors. Systems are designed to prevent these slipping through the net, but they can't always work. You can't just seize on one incident and say the system needs changing. We can only aspire to making as much of it as safe as we can ... and correct errors as quickly as possible."

According to Greenpeace, these food disasters show up agriculture as a bankrupt system. "The Belgian government tried to hide what was going on, as our government tried to hide BSE," says John Sauven of Greenpeace. "The truth is these problems are endemic to industrial agriculture. If we try to continue with this unsustainable system, then the crises will continue to be more frequent and more catastrophic."

Animal welfarists offer the same diagnosis. "Factory farming treats farm animals like production machines. They suffer immensely, and the conditions in which they're kept promote the rapid spread of bugs to such a degree that public health and the environment are threatened," says Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming.

This critique was first voiced less than two decades after intensive farming supplanted more traditional pre-war agriculture. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, her indictment of pesticides in the environment. In the interim, we've had the agrochemical industry's so-called Green Revolution, predicated on hybrid crops and pesticides - which have failed to "feed the world's starving" - while the West has built up huge beef mountains and milk lakes.

Now GM food is promoted as the next Green Revolution. This time round, though, the idea that food technology equates with progress, is making the public suspicious - a feeling sharpened by the government's support for the GM food project.

Consumers who are weary of "defensive shopping", of scrutinising labels for production methods and provenance, are latching on to organic food as a safe haven. Sales of organic food are doubling year on year. "There is a consumer revolution underway," says the Soil Association's Patrick Holden.

The food business, however, is uncompromising: organic food, it says, won't feed the world. Christopher Haskins, chairman of one of the UK's biggest food companies, once declared that organic farming was "an ornament of rich countries' agricultural systems".

He added: "An organic global food chain would create instant, catastrophic world famine."

But academic research shows that far from exacerbating famine in developing countries, organic and low-input farming methods could meet the challenges of soil erosion, groundwater pollution and rural disintegration - a legacy of chemical farming methods.

The clean-up bill for BSE alone has cost the UK taxpayer pounds 4.1bn. Factory farming is subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy, and water com- panies have to clean up intensive farms' pollution. Food in this country has been cheap - but at what price cheapness?

n Joanna Blythman's book "The Food Our Children Eat' (pounds 7.99), is published by Fourth Estate.