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Don't panic at the wrong bug

Friday 28 October 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has covered more food "scares" than he cares to remember, examines the near-panic caused by avian flu and asks: When is a scare a real danger?

SOMETIME earlier this year, the factory which produces Branston pickle burned down and supplies of this quintessentially English condiment were short. The day after the fire, I was in Morrison's supermarket in Skipton and came across an extremely well dressed woman who had a hand basket full to the brim with jars of the stuff.

She gave me a faint, guilty smile, dropped her head to avoid my gaze, then rushed off to the checkout with her booty. Behind her was an empty shelf: she had taken every jar.

This was a minor incident, laughable in a sad sought of way, but I remembered it this week when the avian flu scare began to sweep Europe. Just what is it that makes people - often well-to-do people - go into a blind panic and clear shelves of foodstuffs when, most of the time, it is this very panic buying which causes the shortages?

Still on the menu

This week's avian flu panic, stirred up by incautious words by EU scientists and the customary shambles at Defra (See news, Wednesday) will not mean panic buying, except in the very short term. Just the opposite, in fact, because I fear that sales of poultry and, even worse, eggs will go into free fall.

This is extremely serious and not just for the poultry farmers. In these days when most mothers work, we already have a situation when our youngsters are already dangerously obese because of junk food. An egg is one of those quick foods absolutely bursting with goodness for growing kids and if their mums panic, those children could suffer long-term health problems.

What worries me most of all about food "scare" situation is this: do those working mothers actually understand that there are REAL dangers associated with poultry and eggs which are far more likely to strike their family down than avian flu.

The odds of catching that would be like winning the national lottery and the football pools in the same week. If poultry and eggs are handled and cooked properly in the first place, any deadly virus would be killed.

Scientists and politicians were going out of their way to emphasise this during the week but the fact of the matter is that such precautions should be taken under all circumstances, because outbreaks of food poisoning from salmonella and campylobacter make hundreds of thousands of people ill in Britain every year.

No-one knows the exact figure because most cases are not reported. But these infections can and do kill, particularly the elderly, those people already ill, and very young children. And that raises the question: when is a food scare just a scare - or a real threat?

The word "scare" is often used by Government to suggest that any threat is simply a matter of people over-reacting. I have covered so many of these that I can barely remember them all. But here's a few:

Salmonella, the illness that got a cabinet minister sacked for telling the truth; listeria, the "scare" that caused pregnant women to abort; BSE, the "scare" that brought British beef farming to its knees and has since killed some 200 mainly young people; the foot and mouth "scare" that some say this Government tried to cover up for at least two vital weeks because an election was looming, with catastrophic effects still being felt in the Yorkshire Dales.

These were "scares" that killed scores of human beings and caused the deaths of millions of animals. Little wonder that people are panicking about avian flu or, rather, the possibility that it might develop into a new strain that could pass from human to human. The Government gives all the signs of panicking, too, although the disease has been known about since 1997.

Never-the-less, we are much more likely to get ever-present disease from chickens or eggs unless we cook them properly, wash our hands after handling them - that applies to egg shells too - and make sure we don't spread infection via dish cloths, towels, kitchen knifes or door handles. So wash your hands - AND DON'T PANIC.

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