Leading Article: Scrutiny is the best recipe for avoiding food scares

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The Independent Online
There's nothing like a little tamper with nature to set the public panicking. From the Bible to Shakespeare, from Jehovah's Witnesses to organic food enthusiasts, our history and culture drip with the notion that the natural order knows best. Myths of nature's vengeance run deep. The rot began in Hamlet's Denmark because Ham's mum upturned the royal and family order. Prometheus endured the wrath of Zeus because he dared disrupt the human and godly order by stealing fire for human use. Throughout our history and mythology, human beings have been punished when they arrogantly overstepped the line to organise the world for their own convenience.

So-called modern diseases such as repetitive strain injury and chronic fatigue syndrome are explained away as the self-inflicted consequences of our hectic lifestyle. Cancers are attributed to everything from nuclear power to pesticides, but always to man-made, "unnatural" phenomena. When the focus is food, we become even more emotional. After all, (apart, perhaps, from sex) nothing is more central to our culture than eating and to our most important social rituals. The idea that we can be poisoned by performing one of the most basic and simply pleasurable of animal acts confuses us deeply. So, most recently, the BSE disaster has lent support to the "nature- is-sacred" point of view. After all, BSE might never have spread had bovine herbivores not been forced to become cannibalistic carnivores.

No wonder then that the prospect of genetically engineered food raises such suspicion. Here we go tampering again. Already we find that genetically engineered maize fed to cows could jeopardise the safety of our beef. What further dark forces will we unleash if we meddle with DNA?

The problem is, we cannot blame science for food health scares - we can only blame ourselves. The problem lies not in our science, but with our lifestyle and our public institutions. Yet twisting and tweaking the genes of the supermarket tomatoes should be no more controversial than any other form of scientific research. Like any other product - a new medicine, a pesticide, a new sweetener - these genetic vegetables should undergo strict and rigorous testing. However, if the research delivers something that works, such as cheap but tasty tomatoes available all year round, then we should welcome it with enthusiasm. Scientific progress has brought us cheap food of countless varieties, widening our choice and helping many of us live healthier and more interesting lives. The fact that meat and vegetables are intensively farmed is exactly what makes them affordable, and allows many busy people on tight budgets to maintain a balanced diet, and allows less well-off people to spend more of their money on other things.

But that doesn't mean we don't have a genuine and growing food problem. We do. Food poisoning cases are on the increase; from 63,000 in 1992 to 82,000 in 1994. Even if people are becoming more willing to report their bowel movements to public health officials these days, this is a significant increase.

Who or what is the real culprit for our bubbling gastric troubles? One factor is our changing expectations. Most cases of food poisoning are still a result of easily avoidable mistakes in the kitchen: using the same knives for cooked and uncooked food, not cooking food for long enough, reheating food that should really be thrown away. The mistakes we make in our own kitchens poison only ourselves and our families and rarely get reported.

But these days we eat out far more often, trusting our stomachs to the hygiene of hard-pressed cooks in low- paid, low-profit industries. When that Indian restaurant reheats the madras, when the pizza chef slams the cooked marguerita down next to the uncooked chicken, when cooks in a hurry cut corners, customers pay the price in a night's lost sleep or a few days' miserable discomfort. The same is true in institutions, including schools and colleges: low-paid kitchen staff heat cook-chill lunches against the clock. In the circumstances, it would be a wonder if children didn't get food poisoning occasionally.

For most of us, food poisoning is little more than a minor inconvenience. The risks of chomping our way to severe gastric trouble remain small. E coli, the bacteria that has killed several people in Lanarkshire, remains rare. Nevertheless, for the young and the elderly food poisoning can be fatal. If we wish to improve public monitoring, and to prevent our food problems growing even worse than they already are, we must insist on more alert scrutiny by trading officers and health officials.

Perhaps most important, however, we should take government responsibility for food out of the hands of the producers. We can't even start to improve the food we eat in our own kitchens if we aren't given full information by a government acting in our interests. Unfortunately the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food still operates in the interests of the farmers and the food producers rather than consumers. We all remember Cordelia Gummer - daughter of the agriculture minister, not the health minister - wolfing down hamburgers to defuse the rumours about BSE. When Edwina Currie as health minister spoke out about salmonella in eggs, the Maff brayed for blood - and they got it. Salmonella cases went on rising even after Edwina was sacked.

Poisoned food in Britain is not the crisis it sometimes seems. For most of us, the advances in convenience and access outweigh the dangers. We are certainly not the prey of a ruthless scientific-corporate establishment, ruining our food in pursuit of profit. Nor are most of us ever at risk of contracting anything worse than a gippy tummy. But our public health is certainly worse than it need be, thanks to carelessness, ignorance and an inappropriate system of supervision.