All bull and bravado

Health ministers can no longer bully us into swallowing their propaganda on `safe' beef
Click to follow
We should break up the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) and sack its propagandists. Then, on beef, as on many other food issues, politicians should have the courage to admit their ignorance. Yesterday, ministers should simply have noted the scientific news and said something brief, such as: "Use your own instincts about what to eat. As for ourselves, we're not sure."

Fat chance. They are politicians and must pomp the day away. The official view of the beef "scare", like the salmonella "scare" and the listeria "scare" is that there is a conflict between Reason, represented by science and government, and popular Frenzy, represented by woolly-headed consumers and scaremongering journalists.

In the Commons the impression was given that there is a pure and disinterested body of scientific knowledge on which ministers purely and disinterestedly draw. Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, and Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, repeatedly referred to the "latest ... independent ... scientific advice". They were, they implied, mere messengers, carrying unchallengeable truth down to the easily panicked people.

But they aren't mere messengers, and this isn't unchallengeable truth. Hogg, in particular, is the representative of Maff, which is a player, the self-appointed champion and cheer-leader of the beef farming industry. So there was a telling difference of emphasis between him and Dorrell.

The latter stressed that he wanted more advice for parents and merely repeated the scientific advice about the risks. At one point he told MPs: "We have received urgent advice and we are acting urgently ... in the national interest." Compare that with Hogg's repeated mantra that "British beef can be eaten with confidence."

Whether it can or not, I wouldn't trust Hogg on the subject. Nor do I understand why his job, in its present form, exists. We don't have a construction minister going around urging us to buy more houses. We don't see politicians going on the telly to campaign for the wearing of British shirts or shoes, the drinking of Scotch or the playing of English software games.

So why do ministers feel the need to stuff British meat, eggs, cheese or whatever down voters' throats? We are a nation of well-informed consumers able to make up our own minds about what we eat. Why should ministers tell us whether or not to give up beef? Why is this one industry thought deserving of particular political support?

It isn't as if agriculture is one of our huge national employers any more - it is only a quarter of its 1945 level. Though there are many poor farmers, there has been a big shift to large-scale farms, further stimulated by the Common Agricultural Policy. With some studies suggesting that up to a quarter of farmland may go out of production by 2010, being used for woodlands, building, golf-courses, tourism or what have you, I fail to see why government needs to propagandise so vehemently for one form of land use over other kinds.

While Maff does carry on in this way, the country will be unconvinced by its line on beef. Hogg had said that the previous regulations for the treatment of beef carcasses were fine. Yesterday he announced extra ones and said controls in slaughterhouses "should be even more vigorously enforced". So where does that leave his previous, equally confident advice?

Similarly, it is always dangerous to see science as beyond politics. Scientific knowledge about beef, as on so many other questions, is incomplete, changing, mired in controversy and affected by personality clashes, funding and the pressure of time.

The scientists don't know, either. It is not proven that BSE was caused by the mashed remains of sheep infected by a similar disease (scrapie) being fed to cattle. This hasn't happened in other countries which also use animal protein as cattle feed. In America, researchers have been feeding cows with scrapie-contaminated gunk for years without managing to give them BSE.

Yet ministers and their advisers speak and act as if they do know; their strategy for BSE has assumed that contaminated feed was the problem. In 1988 the feeding of animal proteins to cows was banned; the Government's Southwood Committee predicted that the disease wouldn't be passed on and would peak at 20,000 cattle deaths. To date, the figure is slightly more than 160,000 deaths.

If mashed sheep-gunk isn't the trouble, what might be? Speculation abounds. There is a rival theory, championed by an organic farmer from the West Country called Mark Purdey, which is that BSE is linked to pesticides called organophosphates, or OPs.

Purdey and his supporters suspect that these very widespread and highly toxic chemicals, spreading through the food chain, are a very serious danger to human health. Richard North, the writer who specialises in these issues, says he was sceptical but had assumed that Maff scientists would take the idea seriously.

But Purdey was abused, ridiculed and harassed by the "official" scientists who were committed to the pesticides he was questioning. After all, Maff had licensed OPs to be used in quantities far higher than in other countries; if there was a link with BSE, the department itself would be responsible for it, and who knows what else?

This returns us to the earlier point about Maff's multiple personality. North sees a connection with the 1964 Cairns inquiry into aircraft accidents, which argued that it wasn't right for the Board of Trade, which was responsible for certifying aircraft safety, to be also responsible for investigating accidents: "intellectual corruption" would ensure. As a result the world- renowned Aircraft Accident Investigation Board was formed.

Similarly, Maff's involvement in licensing OPs and leading the national reaction to BSE is open to the charge of intellectual corruption. That's why it deserves to the final carcass on the pile of BSE victims.

Let us turn, finally, to the woolly-minded and scare-mongered general public, remembering that during the salmonella, listeria and BSE "scares" there have been actual poisonings or deaths.

Yes, we live in a time of food-faddism and hysterias about sugar, butter, fats, coffee, breakfast cereal, and so on. Yes, newspapers tend to exaggerate any potential threat: as this paper's restaurant critic, Emily Green, put it to me, there are too many "dumb little scribblers writing about BSE who don't know the difference between a Charollais and a Gloucester Old Spot". (One's a pig.)

But I think these "scares" gain momentum not because of journalistic conspiracy or ignorance but because of something else - the widespread and wholly rational unease about the modern food industry. People worry about the 400-plus chemicals approved for use on British crops, the additives, the growth hormones and the antibiotics, the mass-production sheds, the genetically engineered animals and fruit. They know we are pushing nature to the limits, experimenting, meddling, tinkering. They are not fools.

And when things go wrong, as sometimes they must, most people will trust their instincts, not secretaries of state or anonymous, uncertain committees of scientists. This is a vast, self-confident industry, rich in land, money and political influence. So the instinct of governments is to reassure us; to pretend that they know. But they don't. They haven't a clue.