Hard to swallow Beef tomato

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I am told by mutual friends that the Princess of Wales is an avid reader of this column. I am not surprised - she is a fellow Cancerian, with a taste in tall, elegant, rich men. Plus we share an affliction: like Diana, I am bulimic, except that after going on an eating binge I manage to hold it all in.

But this control is now threatened. For all this week my gorge has been rising as claim and counterclaim about BSE and genetically engineered foods have horrified the nation. Doctor Doom has declared that he never will eat beef again, while Professor Pangloss opines that there really isn't any evidence that humans can catch anything from the meat of infected cattle (I would love to be a fly on the wall when a ravaged Cordelia Gummer, force-fed as a child on hamburger by her evangelical father, John Selwyn, finally confronts him. The drama will make Ibsen's Ghosts look like a Ray Cooney production).

It was the sheep that went barmy first, eating trees, attacking dogs and baa-ing in tongues. The enlightened farming community responded to this by feeding them in ground-up form to their cattle. Pretty soon cows were going mad all over Britain, slopping about on wobbly legs like a middle manager at an office party. The answer was obvious: grind them up and feed them to us.

Then the scare started - which was how we discovered what actually went into hamburgers, sausages and mince. Not 100 per cent pure beefsteak - all nice and red and white like in the ads - but cheeks, chops, tail, bowel and bollocks - things you wouldn't let into your compost heap, let alone into your stomach. And even those wonderful prime sirloin joints turned out to have nerve endings in them that could have carried (says Doctor Doom) infection from the brains of the maddened bovines. Which is why beef sales have dropped by 25 per cent in Britain as a whole - and (I bet) by 99 per cent to readers of the Independent. Beefless Britain sits back and breathes a sigh of relief.

The trouble is that you cannot escape so easily. Beef turns out to be everywhere; including in chocolate, jelly, biscuits and ice cream. So a children's party is a regular Belshazzar's feast, with the writing firmly on the wall. "Where's the beef, children?" asks the demon entertainer. "It's inside us!" comes the reply.

The obvious answer should be to let the scientists loose on cows. Using genetic engineering techniques (you know, splicing DNA and that kind of thing), they could construct the first nerveless and brainless cow. There would be no encephola to have an opathy of. The cattle wouldn't low much about it - after all, the career trajectories of cows do not require much cleverness. Beef would be back on the table in a trice.

But, as Prince Charles almost pointed out this week, this would (a) be new and thus nearly as bad as modern architecture and contemporary spoken English, and (b) suggest an arrogance in tampering with nature, which could lead to unspeakable results.

Is he right? What set him off was the case of "Frankenstein's tomato". Genetic scientists have altered the structure of a strain of tomatoes so that it rots far less quickly, keeps for longer and has a slightly thicker skin. A paste produced from these fruit will go on sale (clearly marked) in Sainsbury's and Safeways next year. But suppose it somehow has the same effect on humans? Embalmers would be put out of business, cremation would be prescribed, sun-tan lotion would become unnecessary and sex for pleasure would be a thing of the past, except amongst those very few sad men who have always been attracted to rhinos.

Don't worry, my scientific friends reassure me, it doesn't work like that - you can't catch genetics. What is more likely, they say, is that something will go wrong and we will breed a race of super-intelligent and highly aggressive tomatoes - tomatoes that won't go meekly into the tube. Personally, as Christmas and its excesses loom, I could use food that is genetically programmed to throw itself up.

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