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Food Safety Wednesday, 12 August, 1998, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
How safe is the food we eat?
Beef counter
Many people gave up beef in the wake of the BSE crisis
The possible link between milk and Crohn's Disease is the latest in a list of high profile scares that have raised serious doubts about food safety.

Farmers are still suffering from the decade long crisis surrounding Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its link to a human equivalent, CJD. Thousands of cattle have been slaughtered, and beef on the bone controversially banned.

Other high profile scares include the link between eggs and the salmonella bacterium, and the E-coli poisoning outbreak in Scotland in 1996.

Record number of poisonings

Behind the headlines, the statistics are equally worrying. A record number of people suffered from food poisoning in 1997. Officially, 100,000 cases were reported, but scientists estimate the real number could be 10 times that figure.

Ministers are so concerned that they have outlined plans to set up a Food Standards Agency in a bid to restore public confidence.

The blueprint for an agency was published by Professor Philip James, Director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, within days of the General Election. It will be established before the end of 1999.

Protect consumers

The FSA will assume many of the powers currently invested in the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF), which has been in the impossible position of trying to protect consumers and to promote producers.

Jack Cunningham
Jack Cunningham: announced plans for a Food Standards Agency
Former agriculture minister Jack Cunningham said the agency would be "a powerful new body, able to publish its advice to ministers, free of vested interests and able to act clearly and decisively at all stages of the food chain."

The FSA will have 12 independent commissioners with a wide range of expertise, backed by advisory committees and civil servants.

It will be responsible for:

  • Monitoring the safety and standards of all food for human consumption.
  • Developing policy on food poisoning organisms, animal feed, food hygiene, genetically modified food and other novel processes, food additives, chemicals and labelling.
  • Co-ordinating and monitoring law enforcement. ocommissioning scientific research.
  • Advising on diet and nutrition.

Step forward

Catherine Reynolds, a microbiologist and external relations manager of the Food Research Institute, said the creation of the FSA would be a big step forward.

She said the public needed basic information about food safety and hygiene.

Ms Reynolds argued that most so-called food scares were largely a media creation, and that the food industry was expert at minimising risk.

However she said it was impossible to erradicate all risk to the consumer - particularly when the public had unreasonable expectations.

Modern life increases risk

"Food has never been safer. The techniques in place to minimise the risk of organisms surviving in the food chain really are quite extraordinary in comparison to what there used to be," she said.

"But the way we lead our lives has changed. People visit the supermarket once a week now, instead of their local shop once a day, and they also expect there to be less preservatives in their food.

"Manufacturers do their best to produce products with an appropriate shelf life, but if we abuse that, we put ourselves at risk."

No basic knowledge

Ms Reynolds also warned that many people lacked a basic knowledge of food hygiene, which was no longer learned at school, or passed down through the family.

She said that the creation of the FSA could play a significant role in addressing that basic ignorance.

"Hopefully it will bring together under one roof all the expert opinion needed to push forward a better understanding of food safety," she said.

"But my advice to the public is 'don't panic.' Use of the term food scare should be banned, it is as useful as talking about footballers going 'to battle' on the pitch."

BBC News
BBC Consumer Affairs Correspondent Denise Mahoney: "Consumers can be forgiven for being sceptical"
See also:

27 May 98 | Medical notes
23 Jul 98 | Health
11 Aug 98 | Latest News
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