Peter Shears: The politics must be removed from food safety

From a talk given by the director of professional studies at the University of Plymouth Business School
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The Independent Online

As the country is certified clear of foot-and-mouth disease, food-safety issues are once again in the news. After the headlines in December 1988 provoked by Edwina Currie declaring that most of the UK's egg production was infected with salmonella, public concern intensified in February 1989 when ready-cooked chicken and soft cheese were hit by an outbreak of listeria. Throughout the Nineties, cases such as carcinogenic benzene in Perrier and E coli in Scotland as well as the massive impacts of BSE and CJD have raised public demands for political action.

World leaders, including Tony Blair, Romano Prodi and Bill Clinton, have all taken up and waved the cause of public confidence in food safety as if it were a battle standard during their respective terms in office. They have all promised systems that are centralised, systemised, controlled, co-ordinated, transparent, scientifically aware, free of industry links and focused on consumer concerns. Their proposed systems may be good, but they are not the same and they all possess one significant flaw – their failure to recognise and respond to differing cultural traditions.

Food safety is an important concern for any culture, and systems of safety assurance must remain consistent with that culture. There are deeply embedded traditions around food, many of which date back to the Middle Ages, that are challenged by modern food-safety threats, such as "mad cow disease", and evolving food production technologies, such as genetic engineering and irradiation. Any food-safety system that does not take into account regional and national differences is destined to be rejected by another culture.

In addition, a food-safety system must also account for the increasing consumer suspicion that measures taken by politicians in the name of culture or consumer preferences about food safety are thinly disguised barriers to trade and investment. Yet it must be recognised that for trade to flourish between massive trading partners, such as the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States, the proposed safety systems must engender international respect.

There seems to be increasing cause for concern that within the European Union that there may be "turf wars" – for example, between the United Kingdom and its new Food Standards Agency and the nascent European Food Authority, when it opens for business in 2002. Further friction may emerge between the US Food Safety Initiative and the European Union. Politicians will inevitably seek to play to the home gallery.

We are concerned here with a crisis of confidence. The sad results of existing inadequate systems may have resulted from the uncoordinated appliance of science, but the public has lost confidence not just in the safety of what they eat but in the reliability of those they trusted to see to it that what they eat is safe.

The politics should be taken out of food safety, and science should – and should be seen to – drive the policy, rather than the much more complex political forces that have been evident in recent years. Politicians can call their food safety system "farm to fork", "gate to plate" or "stable to table", but publicity campaigns are worthless if systems fail to work.

Public health may be too important for politicians, but public confidence is the heartblood of politics. The public needs to see the real scientists working, discovering and discussing their work. We want real rules, really enforced by trained people, with sufficient resources to get it right – first time.