Leading Article: Healthy scepticism can sometimes save our bacon too

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"Right, that's it. I'm going to start eating meat." Thus a vegetarian spoke for the nation this week in response to the news that the Government advises us not to eat more than 90g of red meat a day. All over the country, people will have turned on their televisions or radios, or opened their newspapers, and resolved to buy more lamb, bacon and sausages. Morally, this may be a healthy response, a British cussedness which (in our national mythology at least) built empires, fought wars and defeated impossible odds. We are not Germans, we tell ourselves, and regard pedestrian signals as mere suggestions. Nor are we Americans, requiring printed warnings that coffee may be hot. If a government minister advises us how to live our lives, our instinct is to tell him or her to get lost. No one tells us what to eat.

Bodily, on the other hand, it is an unhealthy response, and deep down we all know that. Smokers have the same reaction to increasingly insistent lecturing from cigarette packets and the widening band at the bottom of billboards. They grumble about it. They do not like being told unpleasant facts. But they do listen.

After all, the Government is not advising us in its role as a political machine. It is acting in its neutral mode as the verifier of the scientific consensus, presenting us with information which we can take or leave. And we absorb and act on scientific information all the time, whether it is taken from women's magazines, advertising or the person at the next desk in the office.

So is there something about food in particular which makes us respond so badly? Is it childhood memories of being told that things which taste horrible are "good for you" and anything nice is "bad", with the heavy overtones of Protestant self-denial? It is not as if we are uninterested in the science of food. Otherwise ordinary individuals are capable of sounding like molecular biologists with talk of polyunsaturated oils and free radicals. We all sat up and took notice when the government announced that BSE could be transmitted to humans. But that was a scientific breakthrough, made public and turned into advice almost immediately. Whereas this week's advice on red meat seems more like telling us what we know already, which does smack of bossy nannyism. Except that a lot of people did not know the details: Does bacon count as red meat? Does 3oz count as too much?

The problem is more that we are uninformed about the mathematics of risk. As the meat industry desperately tried to counter-spin yesterday, there are many other factors that contribute to the risk of cancers and ill- health generally, and if we tried to take account of them all, we would never have time to eat anything.

That is why the Government should issue advice. (Although if it were consistent in its attitude to risk, it would advise people not to waste their money on lottery tickets.) We are attentive to matters concerning our own health, but cannot assess the mass of scientific information ourselves. The Department of Health should offer guidance, not because it wants to save money on the NHS - that argument breaks down in any case because if we live longer, we cost the health service more - but because one of government's functions in a democracy is to help citizens understand important but complex data.

We may be grudging, but we do respond to information. Attitudes are already changing. Vegetarians may regard this week's advice as a plot to rob them of their anti-establishment credibility, but they were beginning to lose their cranky image anyway. Consumption of red meat has been falling for many years, and vegetarianism has been rising.

Of course, it is equally true that obesity is growing in a population that knows more and more about the need to eat more fruit and vegetables and take more exercise. But the reasons for this trend have more to do with stress, deprivation and comfort eating than with information.

However, the British instinct to heckle when hectored is a valuable safeguard against faddism based on partial science. Some things, such as small amounts of red wine, are bad for us in some respects but turn out to have benefits in others. So total abstinence - simply for reasons of health - would have been an overreaction. Let us accept, then, that we grumble at being told by Frank Dobson what to eat partly because of the unpleasant feeling that we are going to have to give up things we like. This is how big changes in attitudes come: not with a bang but with a shuffle. A finding here, a refutation there, a government nudge. It is important that we are hectored. But it is equally important, if not more so, that some of us ignore it.