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The great food scare: who's to blame this time?

Friday 25 February 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been reporting on food scandals for more years than he cares to remember, ponders on the latest poison chilli scare and asks: how can they blame the farmers this time?

IT HAS been another bad week for British food. As supermarkets rush to remove almost 500 products contaminated with poisonous chilli powder, we can add the name Sudan 1 to the long list of ominous invaders that have infected our food chain: salmonella, listeria, BSE, vCJD, E.coli 0157.

And that is not all of it. The week started with yet another doomed attempt by Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett begging the supermarket chains to stop bleeding farmers dry. And half way through it, Naked Jamie Oliver came out on TV to describe the food we feed our children in school dinners as unhealthy, cheap, un-nutritious sh*t.

Now I have been writing about food crises for at least 30 years and, in most of them, the people desperate to find scapegoats - i.e., the politicians, the food scientists, the supermarkets and the industrial food manufacturers - have always turned their guns on the farmers.

Beat food poisoning by buying local food
Beat food poisoning by buying local food

They made a nice easy target because the PR skills of the National Farmers' Union are almost non-existent so townsfolk readily swallowed the idea that they were being poisoned by lazy, dirty, money-grubbing country folk.

The fact that all these attacks were unjust - farmers are not biochemists nor bacteriologists and only use feed and pharmaceuticals supplied to them by so-called "ethical" companies - the mud stuck.

But this week, where are the hordes of people ducking and weaving to escape the blame going to point the finger? For the chilli powder adulterated with Sudan 1 - used industrially to colour shoe polish and other lip-smacking products - came from India and went straight into the maw of Britain's mass food processing industry.

It had been banned in America as long ago as 1918. It was found in food exported from England to France in 1963. And the present batch, believed to have arrived on our shores at least two years ago, was exposed only by scientists examining Worcester sauce, that impeccably English condiment, in Italy!

Even then, the Food Standards Agency, set up to protect the public after the BSE disaster, tried to cover it up for another two weeks, according to its critics. I don't find that hard to believe, for the old MAFF covered up BSE for two years and, disastrously, foot and mouth for at least a fortnight, during which time its spread from the North East to the rest of Britain via cattle marts in Cumbria.

So what the hell were the FSA up to this time? Who were the scientists who overlooked a potential health threat for at least two years when, throughout the rest of the Western world, that threat was well known?

Then, of course, there are the food processors, getting fat on profits by giving us a nation of obese school children pumped full of fat, sugar, salt and E. numbers via non-foods that the Naked Chef dismisses as excrement. Don't they employ food scientists to check for such dangers - or are they so used to poisoning us that this is part of normal practice?

Finally, the supermarkets, the biggest, richest, most powerful retailers in Britain. Don't they check if they are poisoning their customers? Those of us who read of Margaret Beckett's plea to them to stop bankrupting their food suppliers chortled with disgust.

For, you see, some three years ago they agreed to do just that by entering into a voluntary "code of practice" after dairy farmers were pouring millions of gallons of milk down the drain because their supermarket payments were less than the cost of transport. They solemnly signed the papers - and, according to the Country Landowners and Business Association, reneged on the deal within months.

My question now is: will we see heads rolling at Defra, the FSA, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda or Morrison's? The answer, most certainly, is No. We, the public, will continue to be fed junk or even poisonous food until the next scare arrives.

What should we do in self-defence? That's dead easy, particularly for country folk. Buy your food from local suppliers who can tell you where it comes from. Then cook it yourself from good raw ingredients. That way, you and your family will remain healthy - and at the same time, rob the rubbish food barons of some of their ill-gained profits.

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