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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK

Crisis of confidence in UK food

Consumers want to know what is in their food

There was a stage in the late 1980s and early 1990s when UK consumers really did wonder what they were putting on their plates. Hardly a week went by without some new scare over the safety of food.

It was just a matter of time before the government would have to overhaul the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods (MAFF). The department's credibility was on the line: it was accused of putting the interests of producers and manufacturers above the safety of the public.

So when the Food Standards Agency was proposed by the new government, there might have been arguments about its remit and funding, but there was little dispute about the need for its creation.

Something had to be done to reassure the public.


Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning and can be fatal. It is contracted mainly through eating raw or undercooked food.

[ image: Eggs should be hard boiled to prevent any infection]
Eggs should be hard boiled to prevent any infection
Salmonella came to prominence when Edwina Currie MP, a junior health minister, said in 1988 that most eggs in Britain were infected with the bacterium.

Her comments sparked a public outcry and two weeks later she resigned.

But, by early 1989, the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture had investigated the issue and concluded there was a link between eggs and salmonella poisoning.


E-coli 0157 is a rare strain of the E-coli family of bacteria, most of which are beneficial to human beings and found in almost all animals.

This rare strain is intestinally-related, causing haemorrhaging and therefore loss of blood.

A major outbreak caused by contaminated meat products occurred in Lanarkshire in Scotland in November 1996.

The outbreak claimed 20 lives and prompted the setting up of a government commission in November 1996.

Led by Professor Hugh Pennington, the commission's brief was to examine the circumstances that led to the outbreak and to advise on the implications for food safety.

Professor Pennington, a microbiologist at Aberdeen University, made 32 recommendations covering every aspect of food production, consumption and advice on how to handle future outbreaks.

He recently accused the government of failing to tackle what he called a "crisis" in British food production.


Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a disease found in adult cattle. It was first identified in November 1986.

[ image: Beef sales plummeted because of BSE]
Beef sales plummeted because of BSE
The brains of infected cattle degenerate and become spongy. There is no known cure.

Scientists concluded it had probably been transmitted to cattle in their feed after changes were made to the way it was manufactured.

In 1996, the government told the House of Commons that a probable link had been established between BSE and Creutzfeld Jakob's Disease, a fatal condition which affects humans.

The announcement prompted public and political hysteria that resulted in the EU issuing a ban on all exports of British beef on March 25, 1996.

On April 16, 1996, it was announced that all animals aged over 30 months at the time of slaughter would be destroyed rather than be allowed to enter the human food chain.

Labour pledge to tackle problem

The Labour Party pledged in its manifesto to set up a Food Standards Agency which would put consumers first and restore public confidence in food production.

The blueprint for an agency, commissioned by Labour, 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.

The new government has attempted to appear tough on food issues. It wants greater control of food supplements and unpasteurised milk, and it recently took the highly unpopular step of banning the sale of beef-on-the-bone.

But it believes urgent measures are now required. 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.

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