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Important New Book on Food Safety by Andy Rowell

BOOK REVIEW:

Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat:
The True Story of GM Food, BSE and Foot and Mouth

by Andrew Rowell

Earthscan, 2003

Reviewed for GM Watch by Claire Robinson

In his groundbreaking new book, Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat, investigative journalist Andrew Rowell looks at the food and agriculture industry meltdowns that have dominated the last two decades - BSE, foot and mouth, and GM - and traces the decisions that led up to them.

Rowell's searchlight looks behind the Alice-in-Wonderland logic spun by industry and governments (GM crops are so different from anything that has gone before that they are worth the billions of pounds needed to develop, patent and promote them. Yet simultaneously they are so like traditional food that they need no independent safety testing!).

He reveals that in reality, food policy is driven by quite another type of logic. Calculated, consistent and careless of all that is dear to the public's heart - public health, animal welfare, and social and environmental sustainability - its unwavering aims are to maximise the gain to the big businesses that keep governments afloat and to minimise liability.

Rowell interviews scientists and government insiders, many of them whistle-blowers who were removed, sidelined or vilified when they refused to go toe the government and industry line. He shows how our food crises are not bolts from the blue but the inevitable outcome of policies that put secrecy, self-protection and the interests of big business before those of consumers.

One lesson to be drawn from the book is that if a policy doesn't add up, it's probably a scam. For example, many have wondered what scientific evidence underlies the Wonderland 'Over Thirty Month' rule, whereby cows slaughtered before they are 30 months old are assumed to be safe to eat. The answer is none. Rowell reveals it to be a PR exercise to get the beef industry back on its feet.

"The OTM Rule does not eradicate the risk of BSE, it only diminishes it," says Dr Erik Millstone. "No one really knows, however, by how much it is diminished, but it is probably quite significant. But it is not a guarantee that you won't be exposed to the BSE pathogen." Professor Richard Lacey goes further, arguing that the idea that cattle are safe to eat up to 30 months is pure "nonsense".

What's more, some of the world's foremost BSE experts believe the disease can be spread among cattle from mother to calf and through contaminated pasture, and to humans through inhalation and skin cuts. This would help account for the fact that new cases of BSE and its human correlate, vCJD, are still cropping up long after cows were no longer forced to eat each other. Did the government bring in policies to address these possible sources of contamination? Far from it. In a move that foreshadowed their approach to the foot and mouth crisis, they wouldn't even talk to the leading scientists in the field, preferring instead to vilify them. They refused to commission crucial research that would answer the tough questions about BSE. And they stuffed their advisory committees with scientists who knew little about the issue, passing over the acknowledged experts. Why? To maintain the status quo, says Professor Richard Lacey, one of the persecuted scientists whose ideas were later proved right.

Rowell points out that maintaining the status quo meant suppressing information that the public had a right to hear, and denying the evidence as the young started dying. The grandmother of the first teenager to contract vCJD was told she could not talk to the press: "think about the economy, think about the EEC". She could not believe what she was hearing. Her reply was, "For God's sake, this is a child's life."

The book shows how government "inquiries" into debacles such as BSE and foot and mouth are often simply a way of paying lip service to public concerns while ensuring the continuation of business as usual. The Southwood Report on BSE was a prime example. Though the report admitted that BSE was a transmissible disease and could be passed from cattle to mice, it also managed to claim that cattle were a "dead-end host" and that the chance of the disease passing to humans was "remote". The words "dead-end host" and "remote risk" were used to reassure people for years "as a matter of scientific certainty, rather than provisional opinion". The fact that people continued to die from vCJD did not sway government policy; indeed, it seems not to have been a concern.

Clinton and Blair's role in Pusztai affair

Alert readers will not miss the analogies with GM foods, and on this issue, Rowell does not disappoint. He gives the inside story of the Pusztai affair, in which Dr Arpad Pusztai's revelations on the TV programme World in Action of harm to rats fed GM foods ended in the

renowned scientist being fired, gagged and vilified. Initially supportive of Pusztai's findings, his Institute, the Rowett, did an about-turn, claiming that Pusztai had "muddled" different experiments and that he had not even done the experiments he had talked about. What had produced this change?

Pusztai's co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, commented, "I couldn't understand how on the Monday it was the most wonderful breakthrough and on Tuesday it was the most dreadful piece of work and immediately rejected out of hand'. The person from the Rowett said that 'there wasn't one, but two phone calls from Tony Blair on Tuesday', the day after the day after the World in Action programme. . It is my understanding that the phone call was from Monsanto to Clinton, Clinton to Blair and then Blair to the Rowett. I suddenly saw it all then, it was the missing link. I understood that the Director would have to toe the line, and would have to, as was presumably suggested, 'kill off the research by whatever means,' and it was immediate suspension for Arpad and he was threatened that if he broke his silence he would lose his pension. They have the power to do that." According to Pusztai, there remains of wall of silence from the Rowett over the issue, and the staff have been threatened with dismissal if they talk about the affair.

Professor Robert Ørskov, who worked at the Rowett for 33 years says he was told that the phone calls went from Monsanto to Clinton to Blair, who rang Prof Philip James, head of the Rowett. The message, he says, was "you better keep that man [Pusztai] shut up. James didn't know what to do. ... But there is no doubt that he was pushed by Blair to do something. It was damaging the relationship between the USA and the UK, because it was going to be a huge blow for Monsanto, if it was the cauliflower mosaic virus [CaMV] promoter which was the method they used for genetic modification."

Apart from showing that there might be problems with the CaMV promoter, Pusztai's research was dangerous for another reason. It exposed substantial equivalence as a sham. Substantial equivalence is the doctrine invented by biotech companies to sidestep safety testing of GM foods, on the grounds that if certain known components like protein are the same in the GM food as in the non-GM parent, then they are assumed to be as safe. Pusztai's experimental GM potatoes had been grown under identical conditions as the non-GM parents and should have been the same. But they weren't: the GM potatoes had 20% less protein. Rowell writes, "This was an immensely important finding, as the studies had shown that as the GM potatoes were not substantially equivalent, then they should be subject to much more stringent safety tests, maybe along the lines of pharmaceuticals. Such testing would delay the whole introduction of GM food by years or even decades, and make the entire biotech revolution commercially non-viable."

The rise of GM, like the BSE and foot and mouth fiascos, is only possible in a culture where public funding of science has been cut, forcing it into the stranglehold of commercial interests. One of Rowell's saddest interviews is with Prof Fred Brown, one of the world's leading foot and mouth experts. Brown resigned from the designated foot and mouth government lab, Pirbright, when its links with commerce prevented it from acting in the public interest. Brown believes that the lab's contract with a company researching a test for the disease prevented the British authorities from using an existing test from a rival company that could be used on live animals. This test would, he says, have prevented the notorious contiguous cull, which resulted in millions of healthy animals being slaughtered.

'I think that a government lab should never be forced into a collaboration because of getting money, when it is a thing like this,' says Brown. 'A country that is as rich as Britain should not have to force its government laboratories to go cap in hand to a company in order to keep its thing going. This was the encouragement of the Thatcher years. Collaborate, collaborate, and take out patents. Absolute bloody rubbish. There is a point where you have to be independent, where you say: "No we are us, we serve the country, we don't serve the particular company".'

The trend shows no signs of reversing, with scientific results often being announced in the City of London, the financial centre, before they are peer reviewed and published.

Righting the wrongs

Rowell puts forward suggestions for reform. Government, he says, should set a timetable for new organic targets and the reduction of pesticide residues in food. It should foster the growth of local food markets by restricting imports and mandating the purchase of local and home-grown organic produce by supermarkets. This would currently be illegal under WTO rules, but rules are made by men and can be unmade by them. The rules of local authority and military purchasing of food should also be changed, as at present under EU rules, this must be purely an economic decision with no account taken of locally produced food. Rowell points out that if the government committed the same amount of time, energy and resources into promoting a healthy local diet for all as it puts into promoting GM, then things would be very different. Most importantly, perhaps, government must decouple the science that drives public policy from commerce.

"Do we," he asks, "adopt the high-tech, biotech future, where the sole function of science is as a vehicle of wealth creation, where dissent is not tolerated, where diversity of ideas and engagement of intellect are memories of a bygone age? In this future, science has become subservient to its political and corporate masters. Scientists have been placed in an impossible position trying to reassure an increasingly sceptical public that the ever-expanding array of GM foods and cloned animals are both safe and a necessary part of a diet, that every day lacks more fresh, natural or even local produce."

Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat is as revelatory as it is common sensical and the perfect antidote to government and industry toxic spin. It will open the eyes of the sleepy and give those who are awake a clear insight into the food industry meltdown and how it could be reversed.. It's so readable as to be unputdownable, and while the science is rigorously reported and referenced, I didn't suffer from brain-boggle once. This is one of the most important books I've read. I wholeheartedly recommend it to the seasoned campaigner and the 'uninitiated' alike.

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Highlights from the book
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* Scientist Arpad Pusztai's data were stolen in break-ins at his home and his lab

* In a scene reminiscent of a bad gangster movie, the scientist Ignacio Chapela, who exposed GM contamination of Mexican indigenous corn, was intimidated and threatened in an empty building by a pro-GM government official

* The first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato, was approved by US government officials against the advice of its own scientists, who were concerned about unexplained stomach lesions in rats fed on the tomato

* The US government has commercialised GM Bt crops containing a 'Cry' protein known to be a potent attacker of the immune system and to bind to the gut

* The US government refused to fund research to follow up findings of higher levels of a cancer-causing toxin in GM Bt crops than in non-GM equivalents

* Farmers blame GM Bt corn feed for an 80% plummet in farrowing rates of sows. The corn has been found to contain higher than normal levels of fusarium mould, which is known to produce such problems. The Roundup herbicide often used with these crops is also known to cause increases in fusarium mould

* Fake citizens and activist groups which promote GM and discredit sceptical scientists were traced back right to the doors of a biotech giant

* The Food Standards Agency has sided with the biotech lobby in opposing labelling of GM foods in spite of the fact that 94% of people want labelling. The FSA wants a 'GM-free' label instead, meaning that companies who wish to avoid GMOs have to meet the expense of segregation and labelling - and, crucially, that they can be prosecuted if GM contamination is found

* The Food Standards Agency was originally due to be headed by someone who knows and cares about food safety before he was sidelined because of his association with Pusztai. The job was given to known GM propagandist Sir John Krebs from the Zoology Dept at Oxford University, a department which provides government with a curiously high number of food policy drivers

*A tiny unelected minority of extreme right-wing corporate-funded think- tanks on both sides of the Atlantic dictate food policy and prevent progress towards more wholesome diets.

* Simple, readily available tests for foot and mouth and BSE that can be performed on live animals (avoiding slaughter of healthy animals) were rejected by UK government agencies for political reasons

* In the wake of foot and mouth and the unscientific and illegal 'contiguous cull' in which millions of healthy animals died, the UK government passed a law enabling its agents to come onto private property and kill any animal

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Choice snippets from the book
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On the anti-organic movement

* There is a cross-pollination of people, ideas and articles between the USA and like-minded right-wing think tanks and academic institutions in Europe. These contrarian groups and individuals deliberately reiterate each other's work in order to generate a critical mass of contrarian thought, which is picked up by a media anxious to find opposing viewpoints on previously uncontentious issues. The strategy has worked before; namely with climate change, when views from a small group of scientists funded by the fossil-fuel lobby were repeated so frequently that they were given far more prominence than their unsupportable theories actually deserved. In attacking the organic movement, the contrarians are using the same tactics, backing their arguments up by quoting the same small group of right-wing groups or corporate funded scientists.

* Many of its opponents see the organic movement as standing 'against science', and specifically high-tech science, a significant proportion of which is now funded by agrochemical or biotech companies. 'There is a mindset that is wedded to this high-tech approach and 'scientism', that science is the answer to everything', says Dr Ben Mepham, from the Food Ethics Council. For the Food Standards Agency, this modus operandi is not to be challenged, but to be embraced.

On the safety of GM crops approved for Europe

* All the marketing consents so far approved in the EU either contain the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV), a Cry protein or a gene that codes for resistance to an antibiotic. All are proven or potential health risks.

On the 'safety testing' that companies claim to have done on GM crops

* In 2001, Friends of the Earth published a report into testing of GM crops in Europe. They concluded that 'the majority of these tests have been undertaken by biotech companies, and very few have been published or peer-reviewed'. In all, the Friends of the Earth researchers examined 12 GM crops or GM processed oils approved by the EU for human food use. In five cases the safety tests were unpublished. In four cases the details of the studies were 'not available'. 'Biotech companies,' concluded Friends of the Earth, 'cannot expect the public to have any trust in their products if they are not prepared to expose their safety testing to independent scrutiny'. So the irony is that whilst Pusztai was attacked for speaking out before peer review, our very own regulatory system - our safety benchmark - is based on un-peer-reviewed science.

* In their study of transgenic plants, the US National Research Council noted that it was 'non scientific' to note that there had been no harm, because there was simply no one looking. 'The absence of evidence of an effect is not evidence of absence of an effect,' it said.

* Alan Simpson MP: "One of the things that Pusztai has been trying to get us to understand is what we are talking about is a completely new frontier and it's not about plant breeding. This is being run past society and past political institutions on the basis that it is both a radical scientific advance and yet no different at all. It is unbelievably dishonest and anti-scientific."

* In 1988, US policy makers conceded that there was no way to be entirely certain of the safety of GM food. If the 'public wants progress, they will have to be guinea pigs,' said one.

On the biotech industry's plan to pollute the food supply

* Alan Simpson MP: "I think the industry now recognise that hopelessness is their best hope. They have manifestly failed to convince the public of either the desirability or safety of GM products. Having failed to convince, having failed to co-opt or to buy the public support, they are left with coercion. Coercion comes in two forms. One is putting an arm lock over the farmers and the other is putting a choice lock on consumers.'

On the need for food reform

* In the UK, some 750 million broiler chickens are reared a year - 98 per cent of them intensively. Their last week is spent on the size of an A4 piece of paper. A quarter of the 32 million laying poultry suffer bone fractures. A recent survey found that 20 per cent of chicken meat tested and 10 per cent of eggs contained residues of drugs 'deemed too dangerous for use in human medicine'. The stress put on dairy cows has been likened to a 'man jogging for 6-8 hours per day, every day'.

* Supermarket vegetables were 78 per cent more expensive than the organic vegetable box from Riverford in Devon. Over the past two years the difference in price between supermarket and box scheme vegetables had increased by 39 per cent.

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