Food scares

Many people question the safety of the food chain because of the various food safety emergencies that have hit the world in the last few years. Colza oil, dioxins and mad cow disease are clear examples of the causes of this understandable suspicion as well as of millions in losses.

The concept of zero risk in foods is being questioned. One of the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos came to the conclusion that foods were safer than ever, but also that the authorities cannot guarantee that they do not carry any health risks at all. According to David Byrne, former EU Commissioner for Health, globalization makes safety evaluations more difficult and the established orthodoxy that food is safe, wholesome, nutritional and of high quality needs critical examination. This is why there is no risk-free food: eating is like travelling by car.

We should possibly worry in the same way about risks that are more difficult to measure, such as the relationship between cancer and diet. According to experts in this field, such as Mariano Barbacid, director of the Spanish Centre for Cancer Research, the link between our present diet and the rise in cancer rates is both unquestionable and impossible to quantify.

But what is going on? According to Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and one of Europe’s most experienced politicians, food scares are due to the lack of market regulation. For many scientists the culprits are intensive food-production systems. Besides, there is quite an arsenal of chemical products available to anybody who wants them. And it is quite clear that, given human nature, there will always be unscrupulous individuals who place economic gain before consumer health. Remember, for example, the export of prion-contaminated livestock feed from the United Kingdom.

Veterinary health inspectors are key in the management of food safety emergencies. Besides their daily health inspections they also act as front-line troops every time a food alert is issued. But it is true that many of these crises generate situations of alarm that are blown out of proportion. In part due to the radical reaction of many people who cease to consume a given food when there is any doubt about it. For some reason, we tend to follow our gut reactions toward anything that threatens our basic needs. But the media can also influence people in a negative manner if they treat news with sensationalism, if they over-inform or if they insist on repeating disagreeable images. It is possible that they are not aware of how much they are able to harm the sectors involved.

Health authorities do not usually provide much information. And this is because these situations usually make the heads of high officials roll, at least in European countries other than Spain.

However, it is true that transparency is difficult nowadays, because society in general is not very knowledgeable about the reality of food production. Under these conditions, transparency may make people doubtful or frightened, and in turn lead to unpredictable results. This is why transparency must be transformed into information that is understandable.

In short, you should be conscious of your right to demand that food products on the market are accompanied by effective guarantees, and that you are provided with timely and adequate information about their hazards.


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