VEGA News Item

Science and Tomorrow’s Breakfast Plate Tectonics - 26/08/2005
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) gives its Science Strategy an airing. VEGA engages in the consultations with comments based on its 1976 Green Plan for farming, food, health, and the land (and the seas), to the benefit of all animals (human and non-human). Let Kindness displace Callousness! Standards, please, not just Safe, sterilized gut fill.
Re: Agency consults on its new science strategy

1. In 1976 we anticipated with a Green Plan directing research on “farming, food, health, and land” purports now engaging the FSA. We have pursued these objectives in a scientific way and were involved from the start in the evolution of the Food Standards Agency from the initiating James Report and through the various stages of the Bill preceding the Act and launch. We have been imbued with the original intentions to set up a Food Standards Agency with a broader purpose than a Food Safety Agency would suggest – and the history, science, and corollaries of BSE and foot-and-mouth illustrate the wider implications in standards of feed and food production. With our expert (unpaid) testimony in the McLibel trial the defence secured an adjudication upholding proof of “culpable cruelty” perpetrated by the plaintiffs, a major supplier of food in British diets. At the time of the hearing the plaintiffs secured the judge’s agreement to disallow objections to components of McDonalds’ offerings as risks to health, because the government was some months off conceding the association of vCJD with BSE; however, the safety and wellbeing of the livestock and environment were compelling and adequate to secure a favourable judicial opinion.

2. We applaud the strategic aims set forth in your review and would like to offer comments, which follow.

3. The FSA’s imperatives in serving consumers on a scientific basis overestimates the competence of the NGOs, charities, and other agencies expected to match up to the enormous resources of the food industry (and, for that matter, the fuel industry – how many fossil fuel calories go into provision of a school meal or the operations of a top chef preparing a repast on elaborate equipment in front of TV cameras? The words in English and other languages for catering and meal-making are cooks working in kitchens). The consumer side, heavily influenced by the media, may well upset a better-debated scientific assessment of standards and priorities. This is not an unusual democratic decision (by, say, a referendum on capital punishment), which can be cited as a long-running anomaly. Consumer objections are now voiced much more strongly for a ban on poultry meat used for falsely cheap food and safety from evil farming with lamentable standards, nor do the public engage, for instance, in pressure on the authorities to ascertain with urgency the diets (on bodily organs or semen) of donors living, say, in the peak years of the BSE epidemic. (It was at our urging that the BSE Inquiry asked all the witnesses to declare if the evidence had affected their own dietary habits or their advice as governors of schools or within their families. As far as we can find, the published records omit the results; however, we have accumulated privately some relevant information. This is important when the public is confronted by experts on safety who fail to reach a general conclusion, but they must be in the best position to present their own exemplary reaction). The precautionary principle needs expression as never before, after a run of dodgy assurances. Is mutton, Halal goat meat, or ewe’s milk “safe” – or would the experts advise and exemplify changes to less objectionable alternatives or extensions?

4. A science strategy must therefore educate the public into an objective and broad-based critical involvement in food as an essential in citizenship. The surge of activity over school meals must be matched by a knowledge of bromatology, with food engaging the public in an essential service in conjunction with fuel, transport, and the environment (and thus the land and the CAP). It must be a public that actually reads and appreciates the language in the labels. We need convincing from details in the public domain that the members of the FSA’s Council exhibit in their own choices and needs individual interpretation, and exercise application of the decisions they make in standards and information on claims, advertising, and labelling; and do they react in any way to the extent of a boycott? Out of well over 100 relevant CVs that we examined, each telling of personal financial arrangements more appropriate to the other FSA, not one professes vegetarian persuasions nor the promptings of a diabetic or weight loss regimen or avoidance of allergies or intolerances, and of GM products or those not designed as organic, yet 5% or more of the general population declare such dietary leanings; and whatever stocks and shares they buy, what foods do the Councillors choose to purchase in the shop or restaurant? The science of food must be shown to be more exciting and lift the impression that cheap sanitized gutfill will serve the nation with nutritional necessity.

5. We have tried to see these ideas implemented in the media in a practical and objective way. We can cite precedents going back to the Radio Doctor and Lord Woolton of the wartime Ministry of Food. Our efforts at a revival are bearing fruit and we commend further initiatives to the Food Standards Agency, with slots for reports from its correspondents in the food sciences and from others in trade and marketing. The Times has begun a weekly shopping survey developing in this manner and the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures, which are covered live for national TV and are directed at families, bid fair from information already released this year to sound an estimable bromatological note in the furor over school meals, children’s diets and parental responsibility. This year’s lecturer and presenter is Professor John Krebs. Such material should find much further circulations, e.g. in school curricula.

6. The food and pharmaceutical industries are coming ever closer in the science, technology, and marketing that they can deploy, with resources in many respects that GOs, let alone NGOs, can match. Events and publications run by organisations such as the Royal Society of Medicine, Nutrition Society, and British Nutrition Foundation would be incomplete without sponsorships and trade stands from industry. Major commercial interests are insinuating their promotions under the cover of advertisements apparently representing a campaigning NGO; or even registered charities lease their logo or sell their symbol of approbation on products and standards they haven’t the means to assess or monitor. It is therefore essential to ensure that agencies such as the FSA can turn to independent and commercially disinterested authorities for advice and guidance. While a healthy dialog must be entertained with industry, research projects farmed out to impecunious universities with staff heavily committed in consultancies will lower the public’s trust in applications of science.

7. Advances in biotechnology, genetics, and ethics will affect the drug and food industries in parallel. Use of biochemical markers, diagnostics, and careful deployment of screening and epidemiological investigations will aid by non-invasive methods the rapid associations of dietary factors with health and disease; reinforced by the resources of IT individuals in a well-informed population must be able, with the participation of professionals, to take much more care than now of their own wellbeing.

8. “A healthy diet is built on a base of grains, vegetables, and fruits, followed by ever-decreasing amounts of dairy-products, meat, sweets, and oils” emphasizes the Economist giving its dietary advice last April. Engineering an accommodation of equable food production in a world of greed and sloth in lands of supposedly high standards of living with another striving for the elements of the quality of life from the depths of poverty and disease is a task the scientists of the FSA and food industry must face. Appropriating acres and water supplies in low-latitude countries inconsiderately westernising their diets and intensifying the shift of animals into feedlots, production units, and of people into overpopulated slums and shanty towns, are trends that food scientists must tackle in concern with a range of disciplines including economics, demography, and land management. These challenges have to be met in an exemplary way in the management of our own patch and lifestyle.

9. Grow food, not feed was a message from our 1976 Green Plan for farming, food, health, and the land and repeated in our submission to the Cabinet Office calling for consultation on Farming and Food policies with what has become known as the Curry Commission. The Economist’s comment implies a similar imperative; the live/deadstock industry must be run down and respect for animals and the environment, as well as for workers in what was so aptly described officially as “the offensive trades” must be generated. This implies also a trend towards kinder standards of husbandry in which the aims of the 5plus fruit and veg scheme and the like can be achieved with a dignity of labour and a renunciation of the relentless pursuit for “cheap food”. The FSA must engage vigorously in policies for subsidies in these contexts. It must also engage producers and consumers in a lively push-and-pull in standards “from farm to fork”, and take account of the thrift represented by low-input farming, horticulture and sylviculture in all forms from orchards to forests. The same thinking must reach from terrestrial to maritime management and the evolutionary significance of sea-food: the European Lipgene project is beginning to take up some of these issues.

10. Restoration of standards and value in food production must accompany improvement in the quality, presentation, service and environment in food and beverages eaten out. The veterinary profession’s embarrassments with the drift from large animal practice to the more lucrative and pleasanter jobs involving companion animals is an elevation essential for a decent approach to domesticated species and, with changes in the training of vets, lead to kind approaches to wildlife and animal behaviour (which would comprehend their diets, nutrition, and lifestyle).

11. Initiatives in the Green Revolution must be critically revisited. Alternative milks and meats are already entering western markets and there is much scope for development of these modern initiatives in technology with an established record of endeavour. What scientist - and certainly the FSA- cannot but rejoice that the breakfast milk comes from soya beans (or other legumerious crops) processed in gleaming stainless steel vats rather than stuffed into miserably limping mastitic cows in an industry in which BSE originated and has been maintained? Cell culture (from plants and animals) offers opportunities that have been realized to some extent with food-yeasts; developments in microbiology and the pharmaceutical industry (especially as applied in oriental food production and fermentation technology) bid fair to meet the needs of what the British retail trade recognizes as a growing population of “dairy-frees and meat reducers”.

12. Cross suckling of the human population by Mother Cow is an evolutionary curiosity from as recently as the post-Ice Age revolution in modern farming. It needs objective scientific and sociological analysis, especially in populations impatient to “cow” their infants, forgoing all the benefits of breast feeding. Although genetic mutation of the lactase gene has reduced the intolerance, allergies to the proteins in animal milks are frequently reported and doubts persist over growth factors in secretions from animals bearing offspring whose initial development far exceeds the human baby’s. Breast milk and cultural habits are nutritional, physiological, and sociological issues to which the FSA should address its attentions.

13. Aspects of milk consumption prompted the Finnish Karelia Project in 1972, which furnishes a fine example in many respects for the FSA’s strategy. Consumption of full milk in the province of Karelia was linked to a high incidence of syndrome X (metabolic disorder), further linked to intakes of animal fat. Consequent scientifically based and successful reforms were implemented: milk consumption was reduced and fat content lowered, cultivation of rapeseed and rye was promoted, the soil content of the essential element selenium was raised (by applications of fertilizers), and developments with phytostanols (mainly from soya) led to expression in the form of commercial margarine-like products such as Benecol. There are many lessons here for the FSA. Cows not being adapted to yield skimmed milk, the butterfat was unloaded into the CAP’s contemporaneous intervention scheme, whereafter it was dumped at a financial loss on countries such as Poland and Russia as a cheap but exceptionable component of their food-supply – perhaps a fitting retaliatory weapon for some of the incidents in those parts of military conflict. The FSA needs redoubtable scientific guidance to achieve the successes without resource to Food Wars over unwanted by-products and waste.

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