GENTECH archive


Brit food industry

Food Fright 
The more we know about how our meals are produced, the less reassured we
By Sheila McKechnie 
Guardian (London)Wednesday February 10, 1999 

After more than a decade of food scares and scandals, is it surprising
that we trust neither government nor industry? That we're suspicious of
the genetic manipulation of food and we want the Government to act? That
we want to know what is really going on and we want to make our own
choices? We are deluding ourselves if we think that choice will solve all
the problems. As the food chain grows ever longer we're increasingly
dependent upon others to provide us with safe food.

As we browse the supermarket shelves, how can we be sure that the food is
healthy and isn't contaminated? The more we know about how our food is
produced, the less reassured we are likely to be. How many of us will feel
comfortable about eating chicken after John Vidal's graphic description of
life on the chicken line in Tuesday's Guardian?

We can't measure the amount of tin leaking into tinned tomatoes, or the
amount of pesticides contaminating our fresh fruit and vegetables, or the
presence of GMOs in many processed foods. Most of us can't make sense of
the information which is supposed help us - on food labels. With words so
weasel and so tiny, the average food label gives little away. So,
increasingly, we have to trust industry and government and hope someone
out there is looking out for us.

The rise in food poisoning and the growing evidence of long-term health
damage from bad diet has convinced us that something, somewhere has gone
seriously wrong. Despite this, the food industry has an unshakeable belief
in whizz-bang techniques to conjure up the impossible - food that is safe
and nutritious but also cheap enough to beat the global competition. We
remain to be convinced that technical solutions are the answer. In fact,
we're increasingly thinking that the opposite is true. While scientists
are mucking about with our food, the evidence is that we want less, not
more, technological input. This is what's driving demand for organic food
and why it is currently outstripping supply.

Yes, we can take better care of ourselves by eating more fruit and
vegetables and less salt, sugar and processed food - but can we be sure
it's as safe as we think? We don't want to discover that fresh food isn't
really fresh, or that carrots need to be peeled because they're
contaminated with pesticides, or that apples have been waxed into cosmetic
perfection. Equally we don't want to be wound up unnecessarily by every
new scare and passing fad.

The gulf between industry and consumer is still very wide. The industry
views the consumer as befuddled by the issues or gripped by romanticism
about a previous golden age of food production. It talks about letting
market forces rule, free from the nannying interference of big government,
but has done nothing to prevent Monsanto turning the market-place upside
down by introducing genetically modified soya into food despite wholesale
opposition. This is nannying to be sure, corporate-style, force-feeding
consumers with genetically modified foods many don't want. So the
Government says it will create a Food Standards Agency to confront these
many challenges. This is the first welcome step but the lessons of food
scares suggest that it's going to take more than one well-meaning
initiative to sort out all the problems. Industry and government will need
to act in uncharacteristic ways - openly, and actively soliciting
consumers' views. Only by inviting greater public involvement and taking
decisions more openly will government and industry begin to restore
consumers' confidence in food safety. 


Minister in GM foods row

By Paul Waugh, Political

LORD Sainsbury, the Trade and Industry Minister, came under renewed
pressure from the Tories yesterday to clarify potential conflicts of
interest between his business interests and government policy on
genetically modified foods.

John Redwood, the Conservative spokesman on trade and industry, insisted
last night that the supermarket millionaire should not be allowed to make
any decisions on GM foods.

In a letter to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and
Industry, he said that the Government needed to "take a cool hard look" at
the scientific evidence to decide which of the products was safe for sale.

Lord Sainsbury's continuing interest as a shareholder in the Sainsbury
supermarket chain gave the impression that he had made up his mind about
the safety of GM foods, Mr Redwood claimed.

"I am very worried that leaving Lord Sainsbury in charge of the DTI end is
bad for the food industry and bad for customers," he wrote.

"Will you now take the necessary action to ensure that a minister who has
not made up his mind on these matters is put in charge of these issues at
the DTI?"

Mr Redwood also asked Mr Byers to check whether Lord Sainsbury had
maintained an interest in the Gatsby Trust, a charitable foundation that
allegedly funds the promotion of GM products.

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