The shame of food scandals

Contamination of what we eat is not just a Chinese problem. As the UK found, it takes a long time – and tough measures -- to earn back trust. Rose Prince reports.

March 20, 1996, is the date the food industry in the United Kingdom changed forever. It is the day on which the country’s then-minister for health, Stephen Dorrell, stood up in Parliament and announced that there was a link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — “mad cow disease” — in cattle and a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the mysterious, degenerative disease of the nervous system in humans.

The moment the words left the minister’s mouth, there was a realisation that the livestock and meat trade, as we knew it, had been altered. New regulations and an inspectorate were created to restore consumer confidence. Farmers never again would be permitted to feed cattle bone meal from their own species, though — as many critics pointed out at the time – the existence of the practice in the first place beggared belief.

It was not, of course, the first momentous date marking the revelation of a scandal in the British food industry. Before BSE there was the 1988 salmonella shock, when a junior health minister, Edwina Currie, blurted out that the pathogen was rife in the egg industry and likely responsible for the extraordinarily high levels of food poisonings in the United Kingdom.

Since then we have recoiled at the discovery of toxic pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables; watched as dozens of old people were poisoned by pies that contained meat fit only for the pet food industry; witnessed the naming and shaming of bottled water brands found to contain dioxins, and grimly accepted the news that the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock has affected the immune systems of the people who eat their meat or drink their milk.

And that is only in the United Kingdom. Numerous incidents have come to light worldwide, not least in China with the recent discovery of toxins in baby formula.Food scandals come in all shapes and sizes. Foods that are disease infected, foods contaminated by poisons, food that is unnaturally adulterated or simply made with unacceptable ingredients such as the addition of beef-derived fat, for example, to food manufactured in India that would be eaten by Hindus. These kinds of events come about weekly, all of them serious. Yet few stories about them remain in the news media for long and measures to prevent their reoccurrence are not always effective.

Some scandals will achieve extraordinary notoriety, however. The sheer scale of the numbers affected by the contaminated milk in China would never go unnoticed. That the victims were babies, the ultimate innocents, made it a global headline story and a problem that the Chinese government would have to act on quickly.

BSE was not a killer on a grand scale, yet it had a horror-story element that put fear into every consumer. The British government acted swiftly to show it was “on top” of the situation, making great swathes of change to the meat industry – much of it without much scientific basis. They had to be seen to be in control.

Food, as politicians have discovered recently, is a handy political tool. Promise safety; rescue the unwitting consumer from the brink of disaster, and win votes every time — no matter that such promises are impossible to secure. This may sound a little cynical. There is, of course, the necessity to ensure that a nation is made up of a good number of healthy workers — even fighters. It is thought, for example, that the drive to heat-treat milk (an early form of pasteurisation) for cheesemaking in nineteenth-century Britain was the authorities’ reaction to the threat of war in the middle of the century.

The greater scandal, pre-1950 and the industrialisation of food in the West, was lack of availability of food. Starvation, not food poisonings, was the disease to fear. It is only since promises were made that food would not be rationed and that no shortage would occur again that food contamination problems have arisen. And the most notorious events are those where adulteration and contamination occurs simply because the farming and food fraternity are looking to increase profit.

Governments do not always respond with the consumers’ interests at heart. When Edwina Currie said that most of the United Kingdom’s egg production was infected with the salmonella pathogen, the government rushed to protect the industry and she was forced to resign. The authorities knew she was right, however, and went about cleaning up the industry, putting in measures to control the disease in the hen batteries that supply the low-cost egg market.

The majority of British egg-laying hens are now vaccinated, and incidence of salmonella illness of humans has been greatly reduced. Vaccination remains voluntary, however, and it is normal for “codes of practice” rather than regulatory change to be implemented when there is a contamination scandal.

A strong-armed approach is more likely when the blame falls on the lackadaisical authorities who have sanctioned bad practice. Full-scale panic broke out in the British ministry of agriculture in 1996 with the BSE crisis and measures were rushed through to show that the government could control the disease and restore consumer confidence. A ban on the export of British beef was instant and a multimillion-dollar business went into rapid meltdown with the loss of thousands of jobs.

It was decided that any cow older than 30 months should be slaughtered and rendered, literally to dust, and that the carcasses of healthy beef animals should be stripped of their spinal cord and other “specified risk material” (SRM) before entering the food chain. Live cows would now have “passports”, listing their movements from birth until death, and a draconian inspection regime, led by vets and hygiene police, swiftly descended on the industry. be spotted with the naked eye.

For a period it was illegal to sell beef on the bone. The great roasting cuts, the barons and foreribs that form the symbolic “roast beef of old England,” the prime product of its historic grasslands, were no more. Some of these measures made little scientific sense. The “over thirty month scheme” (OTMS) was a sop to the desperate supermarket chains, a euphemism for wholesale slaughter of the national herd of dairy and beef cattle. The inspection of carcasses still was being performed visually by veterinarians and meat-hygiene inspectors despite BSE being a disease that cannot be spotted with the naked eye.

So the authorities can say they acted decisively and consumers and producers will insist they brought about positive change by taking matters into their own hands. But what of the contamination scandals that have not been addressed? Perhaps the greatest present threat to human health is reduced immunity. Infections are on the increase. Hospitals harbour “bugs” that are resistant to antibiotics; employers and school heads report a rise in the number of days taken in leave for sickness. So this is a serious economic problem, one where draconian regulation to obliterate the cause might be expected.

A British government report in 2001 identified 50% of the reduced human immunity problem to be directly caused by the eating of meat containing residues of the antibiotics added to the feed of intensively reared livestock. The other 50% of the blame was put upon the medical profession and over prescription of antibiotic medicines. A wholesale ban on the use of antibiotic feed did not happen, however — only the issuing of a code of practice demanding responsible use of drugs in feed.

The problem, as the authorities well know, is that if antibiotics are removed from livestock feed, it is the end of intensive farming and the price of meat will rise three-fold, across the board. As we are now discovering, rising food prices are any government’s nightmare. The cost of treating people with infections, the ensuing millions of pounds lost to business and — not least — the long-term effect on children who lose school days is enormous; yet it is absorbed, lost in the accounts of various agencies.

Nevertheless, Britain suffers from embarrassment at the number and severity of food contamination scares. Shame over BSE has allowed other countries, especially the European Union, to issue draconian criteria regarding the export of British products. The British authorities also are accused of “gold plating” European laws applied in Britain – extending requirements beyond what is specified. Many of the country’s farmers and food producers complain that the international trade playing-field is not level, and that Britain is importing inferior foods from other countries, made at standards not even permitted in the United Kingdom. Britain has become a responsible producer, but is not so effective at policing the import of low-grade contaminated foods from less responsible countries.

There are certain cultural patterns. Some countries do not have a history of adulteration. In 2008, Italy was shocked to discover that cheeses from 25 of 130 buffalo mozzarella cheese dairies in the Naples area were contaminated with dioxins. The problem, caused by the illegal dumping of waste in farming areas, prompted the authorities to act swiftly, implementing an immediate inspection regime and cleaning up the water supply. Six months later, the industry is clean and in full production.

Italians care deeply about the food they eat – perhaps about every mouthful. The authorities also were acutely aware that the buffalo cheese was worth US$425 million a year to the economy of an otherwise poor area. There is more complacency about the practices in countries such as China, Brazil and the United States.

In the United Kingdom it took a humiliation like BSE to bring about a sea change – a profound transformation – and to raise standards. The shame of it still hangs over British food industry, however, and will do so for many years. It takes a long time to earn back trust, once a scandal has been headline news. Likewise in China, where food contamination is not just a problem with milk. The baby-formula crime and the guilt over the loss of young lives may yet be the first step towards becoming a nation that complies with high standards and has its reputation restored.


Rose Prince has written extensively about food for The Daily Telegraph and other UK publications. She is the author of The New English Kitchen, The Savvy Shopper and The New English Table.


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