It is a basic right to know if the food we eat is safe

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The Independent Online

Of all the disturbing revelations about the British food industry that have surfaced in the wake of the BSE epidemic, the latest is among the most serious.

Of all the disturbing revelations about the British food industry that have surfaced in the wake of the BSE epidemic, the latest is among the most serious. According to government scientists, the major meat producers have withheld information potentially crucial to forecasting the future course of the disease when it crosses into humans as vCJD. They have ducked and woven for five years, refusing to divulge how much "mechanically recovered meat" (MRM) was produced in the years under scrutiny, to whom it was sold and where it was used.

MRM, which is meat pressure-hosed out of a carcass once the meat that can be cut out has been removed, is now regarded as carrying more risk than other meat because of its proximity to the bone. MRM from the backbone of cows has actually been banned for use in food since 1995 because of the possibility that it could contain traces of spinal cord – one of the parts seen as most likely to carry the infection. Some food scientists regard MRM as a byword for this country's policy of cheap food production.

Its presence in less expensive meat products, such as burgers, sausages and pies, could help to explain some geographical and demographic peculiarities of CJD, which has affected more people in the north than in the south, and more young people than old. The suggestion that MRM was used in school meals in some parts of the country is a specific charge that needs to be scotched or substantiated in detail as a matter of urgency.

And yet the meat producers have kept their counsel. Now, not before time, the Food Standards Agency says it will try to solicit the information from the meat companies. But it hardly sounds either confident or determined, stating at the outset that the information may simply not exist, as there was (and, though it beggars belief, still is) no legal requirement for such records to be kept.

The propensity for the line between the executive and the watchdogs to be blurred inevitably compounds public suspicion. And that suspicion is unlikely to be allayed so long as two individuals as intimately associated with the food industry as Lords Sainsbury and Haskins are involved. Secrecy and conflict of interest – real or perceived – are the twin banes of government the world over. If yesterday's decision of the scientists to make their complaints public shames the meat industry into providing the much-needed information about MRM, so much the better. If not, let the scientists name names.

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