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Wednesday, March 11, 1998 Published at 02:26 GMT


Farm practices 'threaten health'
image: [ The NCC fears that antibiotics fed to animals will lower human resistance to bacteria ]
The NCC fears that antibiotics fed to animals will lower human resistance to bacteria

Intensive farming is putting public health at risk, according to a controversial report published by a consumer watchdog.

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The National Consumer Council (NCC) claims the use of antibiotics on farms is reducing their effectiveness to treat life-threatening human illnesses while the use of pesticides, nitrates and animal feed concentrates also raises question marks over the safety of food.

Its report calls for a radical overhaul of farm practices and policies - including the EU's Common Agricultural Policy - to put public health at the heart of the food chain.

[ image: The NCC says washing and peeling fruit and veg may no longer be enough]
The NCC says washing and peeling fruit and veg may no longer be enough
But the paper has been criticised by farmers and scientists, who say it is inaccurate, alarmist and could spark an "unjustified food scare".

The report, called Farm Policies and Our Food: The Need for Change, says the use of antibiotics on farms, to speed up growth and prevent infections among animals bred intensively, could encourage the development of resistant bacteria which cause both animal and human illnesses.

There is also concern about antibiotic residues left behind in meat and consumed by people.

Pesticides, which can impair the human immune system and lower resistance to cancer, are increasingly being found deeper inside fruit and vegetables rather than just on the skin.

And the NCC warns that excessive use of fertilisers could lead to residues of nitrates in produce or contamination of water supplies.

'Radical overhaul' of government policy

The report calls for the ban on mammalian meat and bone meal being fed to cattle, sheep and goats to be extended to all animals, and a continuing ban on the use of growth hormones in meat and milk.

The NCC pins the blame for the problems it identifies on agriculture policies which it says encourage farmers to increase output at the expense of other concerns. It suggests a "radical overhaul" of the Common Agricultural Policy across Europe, and more guidance for farmers to change the way they work.

The NCC director, Ruth Evans, said: "Over-intensive farming methods led to the BSE-CJD crisis. So long as we reward high output rather than high quality of food, further risks are likely."

The NCC is an independent body set up by the government to represent the interests of consumers of goods and services.

Farmers attack 'alarmist' report

Farmers criticised the report and accused its authors of basing their arguments on European data which were not necessarily applicable to food production in the UK.

The president of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, said it also ignored the enormous progress made by UK farmers recently to meet consumer concerns.

"Farmers take food safety very seriously which is why the NFU has supported the concept of the Food Standards Agency and the development of farm assurance schemes," he said.

[ image: British farmers say food is tested for residues]
British farmers say food is tested for residues
"British produce is routinely tested for residues and has an excellent track record - the last thing farmers need are more alarmist claims at a time when the industry is facing a dramatic downturn in farm incomes."

The director of the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), Roger Cook, said the NCC should have checked its facts before criticising British farmers, especially as it was an organisation supported by the tax payer.

He said the use of antibiotics and chemicals by farmers was controlled by regulation and was vital for production and the safeguarding of human health.

"It is particularly regrettable that an organisation supported by the British tax-payer is apparently seeking to inflame public anxiety while ignoring all the many good things being done by the Government to protect the public and restore confidence in British food," he said.

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