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Wednesday, January 14, 1998 Published at 15:23 GMT

Special Report

Scares prompt Food Agency move
image: [ Farmers suffered as fears over BSE saw beef exports banned ]
Farmers suffered as fears over BSE saw beef exports banned

The shape, form and remit of the Food Standards Agency provoked heated debate, but there was little dispute about the need for its creation.

The demand was prompted by the need to reassure the public about food safety following a wave of food scares in the 1980's and 1990's including salmonella, E-coli and BSE.


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: First major food scare linked eggs to salmonella]
First major food scare linked eggs to salmonella
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 November 1996.

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

[ image: Professor Pennington: A
Professor Pennington: A "crisis" in British food production
Led by Professor Hugh Pennington, the commission's brief was to examine the circumstances which 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.

The brains of infected cattle degenerate and become spongy. There is no known cure.

Scientists concluded it had probably been transmitted to cattle after a change in farming practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the rules on animal feed containing animal remnants were amended.

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

[ image: The BSE scare saw beef sales plummet]
The BSE scare saw beef sales plummet
The announcement prompted public and political hysteria which 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.

Government action to ban sales of beef on the bone, plans to ban sales of high-dose vitamin B6 pills and unpasteurised milk continued to spark controversy on food issues.

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.

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.

A 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.

The White Paper was expected in the autumn but was put back until the New Year, amid speculation of inter-departmental wrangling


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