Fri, Feb 17, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Learning from others’ food safety mistakes

By Warren Kuo 郭華仁

Since the presidential election, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has made an about-face on the issue of US beef imports, re-addressing its policy on the topic. It says it has invited a number of experts to discuss the matter, but has excluded Lin Ja-liang (林杰樑), a clinical toxicology specialist known for speaking his mind. Useful comparisons can be made with this and how the British government mishandled the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease, years ago.

Mad cow disease was first discovered in cattle in the UK in 1984 and the following year veterinary pathologists identified it as BSE. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was then known) chose to place commercial interests before human lives, and covered up the news. It was only in 1988 that a committee, headed by Oxford University professor Richard Southwood, was set up to investigate and report on the matter.

Warnings from pathologists and a number of other experts who said it was dangerous to eat the meat of infected animals were deliberately left out of the Southwood report, which concluded that “the risk of transmission of BSE to humans appears remote.”

The government was content with the “scientific” findings of the report and continued to allow cattle farmers to use bone meal — coarsely crushed animal bones — in animal feed, a decision that led to 180,000 cattle becoming infected and the culling of 4.4 million cows. In 1996, the British health minister finally admitted to parliament that mad cow disease could be transmitted to humans, but that was too late for the 166 British people who are known to have died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after having eaten beef or offal from infected cows.

What the UK’s experience shows us is that officially appointed experts, under the banner of “science,” often tell the public that there “is no evidence” to suggest that eating a given food will have adverse consequences. What consumers need is for the government to actually provide “evidence” that eating a given food will not have those consequences. The EU subsequently adopted an early warning system, but this was a lesson learned too late, and at the cost of more than 100 people’s lives.

This lesson does not offer any assurance to consumers in the US. A company working with genetically modified foods has developed recombinant bovine growth hormone (RBGH), which, when injected into cattle, increases milk yields by 10 percent. However, the milk produced contains insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), or somatomedin C, which has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in humans, and this is why dairy farmers in Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the EU and Canada are prohibited from using it.

Moreover, not only does the US government allow its use, but well-meaning cattle farmers who refuse to use it and who have indicated as much on their packaging have been sued for this, meaning consumers have been left in the dark over which products contain it.

This is all owing to the US government’s closeness to corporate interests and its tolerance of revolving-door regulations, allowing experts responsible for food safety to go back and forth between government policies and positions favored by large corporations, unregulated. Many of the mechanisms in place to protect the US public are consequently surprisingly lax.

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