As the FSA tackles the reeling Food and Drinks Industry with gusto is it still bogged down with the poor standards in manufacturing practices and the whole food chain from farm to fork? Are NGOs and campaigning animal welfarists and environmentalists strutting their stuff in open debate and in the barrage of consultations initiated by the offices of the FSA and DEFRA? From our experience we lament lost opportunities in presenting well-researched presentations.
1. One Door Shuts, Another Closes?
1.1 Openness and transparency are imperatives in the government’s running of its ministries and agencies. Application to the Food Standards Agency means that consumers may become regarded more as responsible citizens than a population of customers “out there” and far less informed and co-ordinated than the Food and Drinks industry and the Meat and Dairy interests and the NFU- although they are discovering that cooperation and collaboration can crack under the pressures of competition and free trade. The plight of the fishing industry illustrates the stresses vividly. In other contexts developments and adversities in the mining, shipping, steel and motor industries paint similar pictures of change in which little UK will be overcome by the WTO’s ordinances on organized free trade. Will farming, food, land management, the environment go under in similar ways, dominated by accountants and economists and the price of power, reckoned ultimately in cost of pipelines, oil, and politics and fragile security?
1.2 The British government’s purports are worthy but seriously overestimate the capabilities of the non-government organizations (NGOs) to cope with challenges being tackled by stakeholders (blessed word) in complex matters in which industry and government can command, with the benefits of subsidies and grants, great resources of academic and technological advice, which is thus suspect of partiality. The deficiencies are most noticeable in NGOs ill-serviced by scientific disciplines (to which the FSA declares its strong adherence), many NGOs may be disparaged as single- issue fanatics, inspired and (mis)-informed by press stories of ephemeral existence, desperately raising funds to keep jobsworths at work, primarily organizing catalogs of ballpoint pens, Christmas cards, and other stationery, as well as yet another range of cruelty-free toiletries, and clothing- all at the lower end of the sumptuous array in the choices offered by the National Trust and the like. The registered charities need far tighter management and training than the Charity Commissioners can assert: there is an untapped wealth of wasted and dead funding in the vaults of banks and building societies that should be sharpening the competence and activities of the NGOs and earning greater prospects in rivalry for the public’s beneficence towards recipient, such as the Lottery.
1.3 Some dead investments are deader than others: VEGA survives almost entirely by living off the dead, a most uncertain source of “noughty” (counted by the numbers after the first couple of digits in the donation- an extra nought is the most rewarding aspect of Gift Aid) We do welcome every single pound, euro, or dollar or whatever; but when push comes to shove, we have to match the competence of say, an MP, who is allowed £ 80, 000 a year for the wherewithal of research officer and the appropriate facilities; and we try to match that level of competence by enlistment of voluntary and paid work for researchers and campaigners training for competence and careers in the causes our Trustees share with a public inadequately represented in the purviews of many government’s ministries and agencies, abetted by the powerful and often overriding pressures of commerce and factions doing harm to our interests.
2. Getting a Foot in that Door
2.1 So we in VEGA make broad our phylactery (non-leather, of course) in every possible way by seizing every opportunity for wrangling in consultations and conferences open to us in public debate with governments ministries and agencies, for example, much of this time requires no payment from us. We might even get a cup of coffee and an insight into the FSA abilities to cater for a truly vegetarian repast. We make best use of IT, forgoing the extravagances (to us, on our budget) of desktop publishing and postage but working hard our website and heavily-keyworded open access database (over 12,000 items now). We pay 2 bills with one loan (the English metaphors and nursery-rimes need revision, like much else), putting correspondence in consultations on our websites and allowing recipients of our replies to publish them on their sites, if they invite such further publication.
2.2 This still means that we must take our chances at open meetings (we are seldom invited to closed meetings for special groups, who may nonetheless compete for attention in a hearing at the public events). In view of our long-standing experience in subjects now engaging the FSA, the agency is one of particular interest, especially as some of its Council’s open meetings are held in London, only a Freedom Pass journey from VEGA villa.
2.3 VEGA can trace its pedigree to the Vegetarian Nutrition Research Centre (VNRC) founded shortly after World War Two and then much involved in feeding the world on thrifty diets free from foods of animal origin. Grow Food, not Feed was its message. It was scientifically based, with a laboratory at a school near Watford run by Seventh Day Adventists (with whom the VNRC had no other involvements. Members of the VNRC were involved in the launch of Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, a scientific journal. Their experience in wartime and subsequent activity anticipated many issues relevant to current topics. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps was a vegetarian and keen advocate of Rohkost raw food diets ( and therefore easily attaining and exceeding 5-a-day targets for fruit and veg). He seems to have been a good Chancellor and played a strong role in those years of austerity and continued rationing ( and a famine in Bengal), in keeping the national loaf brown. He failed against the pile-ridden and constipated Ernest Bevin, a heavyweight of the trade unions, whose discomforts at the conference table must have contributed to some highly questionable decisions in Middle Eastern politics. Cripps made no great play of his diet, but suffered some ridicule from Churchill. Cripps spoilt the story at quite an early age by dying of cancer; further, special contrivances had to be made to exclude him from restrictions such as those he had applied on foreign travel and taking currency abroad, because he had insisted on staying for treatment at the Bircher-Benner Clinic in Zurich, a centre of Rohkost and “ alternative” therapies. It all sounds so familiar. Fibre-righting isn’t the only message.
2.4 The shocks of the BSE epidemic made it clear that whatever party came into power after the 1995 General Election some changes would have to be made into the activities and policies of the Ministry of Agriculture, Farming, and Food (MAFF), replacing what was perceived as a production and industry-based bias with a government department consumer-friendly and more receptive of “green” issues. Similar promptings were motivating changes within the EU. Heeding the many messages coming from green campaigners, including VEGA ( which had launched a Green Plan for farming, food, and health, and the land in 1976) a confident Mr Tony appointed Professor Phillip James, of the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen) to plan, several months before a change of government was assured, the responsibilities of successor to the MAFF. Groups such as VEGA were involved from this early start through consultations that proceeded through the various stages of a Bill to an Act. All in one parliamentary spell the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) emerged with, in subsequent steps, the appointment of the independent advisory body, the Food Standards Agency (FSA). VEGA was among the consultees especially concerned that it was S for Standards, not just Safety; the experiences of BSE and foot and mouth disease alone taught that suppressions of the wider implications of safety and security – and of policies of grants and subsidies (which would extend in “modulation” to non-productive husbandry, eg. set aside) – would have to be restricted.
3. Standards or just Safety?
3.1 In other countries interpretation of the S has been limited and the FSA in its early years came in running with fire-brigade actions blatantly in the safety mode, notably in targets to reduce the toll of food-borne diseases due to pathogenic (in people) and zoonotic microorganisms and the spread of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. If BSE alone weren’t enough, the FSA had to deal-and still is dealing, with salmonellas, campylobacters, Ecoli, mycobacteria and different forms of tuberculosis, as well as viral threats, to which bird flu has now to be added. Nearly all of these challenges arise directly or indirectly from the workings of the live/deadstock industry. They are persistent evils of bad husbandry that Vega has been determined to oust. They betray over all these long years to oust. They certainly represent the persistence of faults, standards, malign husbandry, and assaulted environment, accompanied by cruelty to farm animals and wildlife. Critics could lament that the FSA has rapidly “gone to buggery”. And yet more threats approach as examples of the disconnection of environmental wildlife and welfare standards from the interests of intensification in food production, greed, sloth and straining after cheap food and degraded enterprise: bird flu and West Nile and blue viruses, for example- and terrorism of entirely human strife.
3.2 The FSA purports a consumer-first principle in contrast to the MAFF’s attitude and it professes a name-and shame- policy. It is difficult therefore to find any consumer representatives with the required knowledge who cannot be perceived to be accomplices in some way with workings of the farming and food industries and in the tangle of corporate bodies, subsidiaries, and mergers. Veggies have only to think of the ebb of confidence as their favoured brands have gone down the river as take-overs have undermined original and pioneering standards and brand names. Cadbury’s, Fry’s, Rowntree, and Nestle were names once revered in the days of soothing, nourishing replacements for the Hogarthian debauchery of gin, booze, and poverty. Now their names are sullied with the ill-repute of junk foods and dubious beverages suspect in other ways and apparently odd owners and custodians now of Green and Black’s chocolate, whose dark delights have appealed to many veggies’ tastes.
4. Is the FSA’s Council Representative and Potent?
4.1 The FSA’s Council is chosen by arcane (certainly to VEGA) processes that accord with procedures stipulated by the government. The members are obliged to declare their own and their families’ financial interests, with a rigor that fitted their CVs better for the other FSA, but not the Food Standards Agency’s. VEGA has perused these CVs for some indication of individual choices and requirements for food for themselves and their families. What do they eat at their official functions? Did they make any changes at the height of the BSE epidemic and have they continued any aversions or reverted? How often do they stop to read those labels they are endorsing for the great public out there? Do any of the members have to cater for a diabetic or celiac- or even a veggie? Do they represent the many consumers with aversions or preferences of those types and have they any direct experience of such challenges for school children and patients in hospitals or in institutional homes or managing meals on wheels? VEGA has scanned over 100 of the CVs relevant to these guardians of our food standards. Not one has professed to be a vegetarian; yet 5% of the public- the consumers- out there profess to be veggies, and many others could be counted as effectual meat (and fish) reducers and dairy-frees. The discrepancies can be sought in other contexts: none professes to a bout of slimming nor reliance on supplements, nor abstinences from dubious foods, alcohol, or smoking. By face-to-face questioning at open events VEGA is trying to elicit more of such information (as we did of witnesses testifying at the BSE Inquiry, for whom an answer to such a question was obligatory-but it was not recorded in the final record. We also enquired of the members of the tribunal. Likewise, Professor Krebs, recently retired as head of the FSA Council, was forthcoming: he abstained from beef at the height of the epidemic and approved of the advice of his wife, a school governor, to keep beef off school menus at this time.
5. Engaging with NGOs and Campaigners
5.1 So what does the FSA provide at its meetings and conferences open to the public? The morning coffee break at some events and venues offered a great choice of Danish pastries and other “goodies”. The message got through that this practice was unapt for obviously well-fed (and overfed) attendees, and plates of fresh fruits replaced the blatantly offensive offerings; but dairy-frees have a thin time still. VEGA seems to be the only campaigning group to test the facilities at Aviation House, known irreverently as the FSA’s kremlin. Some departments manage, probably through outside contractors, a splendid repast catering as well as any with the (sadly only) veggie and providing plant-milks. The VEGA team have cased the joint at the FSA canteen in the pursuit of their researches. How does the catering for staff match all those worthy edicts that issue from the building? For veggies the answer is poorly, but improving ( with general applications too) but it seems more from this external agitation than from gut feelings from the canteen’s usual customers.
5.2 The FSA’s canteen staff evinced little appreciation of veggie requirements- what cooking fat or oil was used, what were the ingredients in the (unlabelled) salads and was there a plant milk choice for the tea? Customers leaving the servery on their way to the cash point passed an array of snacks – Mars bars, Twix and Kitkat, for instance – then came a small section of less objectionable commodities with a dominant yogurt content. In our later visits, some desirable changes caught our eyes; the section of the less objectionable snacks contained small correctly-labelled tubs containing fruit and, not just peanuts as before. Treating fruit and nuts as a snack or adjunct to a small main meal disregards their heavy but healthy density of fat and sugars commensurate in veggie eyes as the meat of a main meal or in the view of a fell-walker as a collation superior to Kendal mint cake- and the FSA’s likely system of labelling will attract warnings over the fat and sugar. Soya milk was introduced for tea drinkers, but was subsequently withdrawn, owing to lack of demand-and this when several well-known coffee places (e.g. EAT and Starbucks) only yards in Kingsway from Aviation House, had soya milk on regular demand for all comers.
5.3 Our assessments extended beyond the relevance of a niche-group of customers. They indicated no exceptional commitment to the FSA’s messages, which they were issuing. The catering for the staff and patients, and visitors’ local hospitals could be rated better in some respects.
6. Veggie Might or Veggietation?
6.1 The population in the UK calling themselves vegetarian is about the same as adherents abiding by Muslim traditions. As with people such as Jews with other persuasions there are common interests in food and its production, as well as some fundamental objections, mainly over the rearing, marketing, and slaughter of animals for food. Muslim authorities have been quickening their concerns – the halal trade, for instance, is at the moment the fastest growing part of the meat industry; however, we have been able to alert the Muslim authorities to contents of alcohol in many “non-alcoholic” beverages and of gelatine in encapsulated ingredients such as flavourings, vitamins, and other fragile substances in many foods and supplements, Further, we were among the first to warn them, as the likelihood of a jump of BSE into sheep and goats, hidden as scrapie, could put consumers of halal meat at particular risk, because it comprised the mortal remains of elderly and spent breeding animals providing mutton at “ the lower end of the market”. The FSA took this issue seriously and gave time for special consultations and meetings with the Muslim authorities. We have even bought a copy of the Qu’ran in the original and a well-reviewed translation into English. We enjoy also the advice of well-informed Jewish veggie consumer in our team with a good knowledge of the meat market and a redoubtable participant in consultations with the FAWC on aspects of slaughtering and butchery.
6.2 VEGA has to congratulate the Muslim interests for gaining this special attention, especially as VEGA’s pleas for special consideration over matters of authenticity and labelling have been rebuffed. We have offered to illuminate FSA’s officials on a round of a morning’s shopping with a stop for lunch at a local eatery (e.g. a pub). This initiative has also been disdained.
6.3 We have therefore to engage vigorously in the many consultations and open meetings in which any organization or member of the public can take in efforts at gaining the attention of the FSA, DEFRA, and other government ministries and agencies and their many specialized sub-groups. This can entail trying to gain the FSA’s support in the hurly-burly of competition with other active groups, some of whom have also had the privilege of private discussions, VEGA has constantly to address the FSA to standards of food production, in which task it is regrettably almost a lone performer in activities dominated by spatchcocked repairs to many avoidable breaches of safety. We have the consolation of filling a gap in veggie campaigning but a sorrow that many other organizations purporting common or similar missions fail to seize the opportunities.
7. Open Day with the FSA
7.1 As an example of the opportunities a recent open meeting in London of the FSA’s Council, at the end of which groups such as VEGA and the public could tackle the Council not just with questions but also with critical comment and debate, took place in an auditorium of about 150 people, including the Council, and many government and consumer representatives such as VEGA. The proceedings are webcast. On this occasion 800 people were interested enough to log on; they also had the opportunity to enter the debate by email. This totalled an audience of about a 1000 and a lost opportunity by many groups who spend too much time preaching to the converted and ducking a chance to get to grips networking with common causes and strutting their stuff in such company and before influential bodies. And there’s always the reward of that cup of tea or coffee.
7.2 The FSA’s Open Board Meeting on London on Thursday, 15th September followed the usual pattern, albeit with the board’s new chairperson Deidre Hutton, who succeeds Professor John Krebs. What changes will ensue, we wonder. As usual, much of the business entailed the Great Grope into the sordid entrails of the food and drinks industry, valiantly exposing matters many customers would aver they don’t want to know nor to be too bothered with facts. At least, the FSA can’t dodge the corollaries of standards in food production (e.g. the blind quest for cheapness in the face of the environmental and welfare consequences, as well as the recognition that shortcomings in good practice cannot be achieved by last-minute sprays of disinfectant on sanitized gut fill. We were pleased to note a warmer reception for some of the views VEGA has been urging.
7.3 The Board has to decide on options presented by specialist groups on subjects with a strong scientific or technological background. The industry dominates in most of these matters, overwhelming the obligatory stakeholder in the consumer interest; nonetheless, VEGA manages to utilize opportunities at the obligatory open meetings and in consultations. Our website reports our correspondence and demonstrates an exhibition of veggie might (or mite if we ruefully contemplate the missed opportunities by other NGOs, campaigners, and charities to endorse it).We can add illumination on the webcasted proceedings and from individual discussions before and after the meetings and in consultations. Our website reports our correspondence and demonstrates an exhibition of veggie might ( or mite if we ruefully contemplate the missed opportunities by other NGOs, campaigners and charities to endorse it). We can add illumination on the webcasted proceedings and at breaks. A well-controlled bladder is a useful accoutrement.
8. BSE,BSE,BSE……Over 30 months…. Never Ending
8.1 The BSE subject at the last open meeting in London (VEGA has been expressing the animals’ voice on the spongiform encephalopathies for 20 years) focussed on the ending of the over 30 month-scheme (to slaughter and incinerate all cattle that were aged over 30 months when the farmer decided they were unproductive; he would then receive a grant, probably worth more than a realistic market price, and the animal would be destroyed by burning or in tests). The FSA is charged with a change to a Euro-system using newer and “robust” tests for safety that can be applied, if not on the living animal, but to the carcass stayed in the slaughterhouse before the new tests can be applied to ensure fitness for consumption. This advice will now be passed as the final word for the consideration of the deputy prime minister, John Prescott. Robustness is needed in all the corollaries of traceability, good practice, and control: sceptics may observe that the live/deadstock industry’s trustworthiness in these matters can hardly rate as robust, and Euro-sceptics could well mutter sundry objections. However, the Council made its decision without overt counting of the cost to taxpayers, ever being milked to pay for the progression to safety in the dreadful live /deadstock industry: the OTMS has run up a bill of £5.7 billion already; the change will make savings to taxpayers, the annual disbursement running in mere millions. The FSA fights shy of analysis of subsidies to the food industry and the corollaries of the CAP’s policies
8.2 The meeting did not dwell on the effects of the changes to the animals and cost they will bear. Output of British beef will increase by about a quarter; however, this will be mostly cow beef and the meat that can be produced from calves from dairy herds who are worth more than being shot at birth. Cow beef is used mainly for manufacturing: burgers became notorious early in the BSE epidemic for being a product of the forequarter meat. Many manufacturers have thankfully eluded these complications while the OTMS has been operating by importing relatively cheap hindquarter beef from South America. The FSA did not ponder consequences that will now engage the MLC. Nor did the FSA consider that the freeing of exports to mainland Europe would include shipments in the traditional pre-BSE fashion of transhipments of live “heavy” cows (i.e. barreners or spent stock discarded from the dairy industry). The animal welfare societies are remiss in ignoring the consequences of the changes.
8.3 Vegetarians and many consumers in the general population must be angered by the grace and favours the government and the CAP lavish on the live/deadstock industry in the form of subsidies, grants, supervision, and training. No such partiality extends to the fruit and veg industry. The dairy and meat industry complain at the bureaucracy, paperwork, paper chasing, and nanny-statism that it has incurred because it has been proved in many instances of incompetence and “old Spanish customs” unable to monitor and police its activities. The government has exhibited some canniness in requiring the industry to raise the funds by levy for the official monitoring, A browbeaten industry reacts in a muted way to such impositions, because the government thus becomes implicated in indemnification if consumers essay litigation over, say, alleged food-poisoning attributed to a supplier of products containing ingredients deriving from the live/deadstock industry. In a similar fashion government health warnings on packets of cigarettes and smoking material spare the manufacturer’s litigation from coughing and “disheartened” customers seeking redress for the harm the products have caused.
8.4 In farming, slaughtering, and butchery industries relations between inspectors and owners of premises and operatives are often fraught, even to the point of violence and bodily assault. The strife is exacerbated by association of many of the directives with “Brussels” and by the necessity of employing a number of vets in the Meat Hygiene Service brought in from mainland Europe, because the British professionals aren’t attracted to such jobs and, anyway, the training of vets in other countries is supposedly superior to the British in matters of meat hygiene (however, the MHS is also charged with welfare in slaughterhouses and meat plants). There is pressure to appoint from the staff of slaughterhouses a member designated as hygiene or welfare officer. What an uneasy job that would be: inspectors of poultry whizzing past them with a couple of seconds for each of the thousands of birds in shifts that become unbearable after an hour or two are unlikely to exercise the rigor in calling their employers to halt the line on suspicion of some irregularity. And with the FSA’s interests in “buggery” it should note that most causes of food- poisoning are microorganisms invisible to the naked eye.
9. Wallowing in the Fleshpots
9.1 Members of committees sitting in judgement over the working of the live/deadstock industry must come down to earth and recognize the realism in the dire words-slaughter butchery, knackery, fellmongering etc-that are stock in the trade vocabulary of crude assault and battery in a bloody massacre. Standards for all animals, human and non human are degraded, as they are in any war or persecution: at least these abuses may be lifted, when “right prevails” and peace mongers move in. Unfortunately the live/deadstock industry’s relentlessness is not effectively relieved by blandishments buried in bureaucracy and paper trails and free-ranging deceptions of reform pandering to customers well enough to pay a little more in the delusion that this will do anything to reduce their complicity in this vile industry. This degradation indicts the veterinary profession’s involvement with these aptly named offensive trades. A vet is avowed “to do the utmost for the wellbeing of the animals in his or her care”. We have even heard vets suggesting addition of a sixth to the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s vaunted Five Freedoms- this last commitment to apply in the slaughterhouse. A veterinarian should indeed be no more than a misprint away from a vegetarian. Removing subsidies and raising taxes on these products of sin must be reinforced by relentless research, campaigning, and development and advocacy of satisfactory alternatives. The FSA must be impressed with the message and set well-informed examples: likewise, all professed animal welfare organizations, the RSPCA, vets…….
9.2 Oldham slaughterhouse had featured in a Channel 4 TV Dispatches program shown just before the FSA’s Council meeting on 15th September. The item was preceded by a warning to viewers of distressing material and it certainly earned that promise – or threat. It interviewed the owner and his entire workforce and illustrated the standards and backgrounds of the staff. Oldham slaughterhouse is unusual in including within its relatively small premises “normal” methods, as well as both processes acceptable to the Jewish and Muslim trades. Some of the meat from the Jewish method (shechita) may be declared treif or trefa (i.e. non-kosher) and disposed of (undistinguished) through “normal” channels. Jewish and Muslim supervisors were included among the workforce explaining their respective requirements for “religious” methods of slaughter (which entail initiating the kill by cutting the conscious – and unmistakeably terrified – animal’s throat. In the normal procedure stunning should precede sticking and bleeding out.
9.3 Conditions and standards demonstrated at Oldham slaughterhouse represent those required in “robust” demands for hygiene and safety procedures on which the FSA support the arguments for lifting, probably in a month or two’s time, the restrictions entailed in the Over Thirty Month Scheme. As far as we know, the FSA has offered no comment on the scenes televised at Oldham slaughterhouse; nor was there any explanation offered to council and the public at the FSA’s open meeting on 15th September; nor, finally, did any member of the FSA’s Council seize the opportunity during AOB to seek explanations of the damning revelations in the C4 transmission.
10. Fit as Butcher’s Dog? But it Didn’t Bark.
10.1 And where was the dog that conspicuously didn’t bark? We mean the Meat Hygiene Service, which monitors, polices, and records standards (including animal welfare) in Britain’s slaughterhouses. The premises and activities at Oldham must have involved vets and official inspectors. Indeed, they were present at the filming, because VEGA could recognize in backgrounds some familiar faces. We know now that the MHS insisted on being excused identification and commentary. Our intelligence tells of about 30 prosecutions recently brought against the slaughterhouse and that one of slaugthermen was sacked the day after the program was run and that his licence was revoked.
10.2 However, the place is still in business. There is the hope that the State Veterinary Service can see it through its difficulties in the next year, so that it can continue to supply communities in Manchester demanding kosher and Halal meat, for which fell purpose the Oldham slaughterhouse has a particular distinction. It is odd that this service should operate from a hell-hole of racial abuse and bullying.
11. Supplementary Health. Too Muchness. Nimiety and Deficiency.
11.1 The Council at their Open Meeting had been set 3 options by their expert advisers on regulations concerning maximum levels on vitamin and mineral contents of supplements. This is a tricky test, full of scientific uncertainty, variable precedents, and easy circumvention, e.g. by importation by on-line ordering. The Council plumped finally, with one or dissenters, to adopt an option continuing present liberal practices, endorsed by warnings on possible overdosing.
11.2 This subject raised some complacent observations from members of the Council, particularly over practices intended to limit overdosage of fat-soluble vitamins and some over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, e.g. the pain killer paracetamol (aka acetaminophen). We were uneasy that such statements went unchallenged.
11.3 Supplements supplying iodine and supplies of seaweeds were exercising us as researchers in the veggie interest many years ago. We supplied MAFF and the editors of the official Composition of Foods compilations with the results of analyses of seaweed samples for this essential element. We have not let up on this subject and other results published this year broadly confirm ours, and the agreements cover ranges of specimens with very low contents to others with levels so high that regular consumption could do harm. We have much more information on this subject, which we intend to publish soon on this website. Our resources at that time allowed analyses of only one natural kelp supplement, which we took at random from the selection on the shelf of a health food store. The analysts and we were amazed when the iodine content turned out to be nearly ten times the level declared on the label. Repeat analyses confirmed that routine use of this supplement, especially by consumers with already adequate dietary intakes (e.g. from dairy produces, eggs, fish, and meat) could be dangerous (say, over 1000 mcg/day; RDAs and RNIs internationally accepted advise intakes for iodine at 140 to 150 mcg/day). We immediately informed the manufacturers and alerted MAFF to the need for warnings and further research.
11.4 MAFF reacted vigorously, commissioning analyses of over 60 supplements claiming iodine contents. Wide discrepancies with labelling claims emerged, none as extreme as our specimen and as the further specimens that MAFF independently examined. However, MAFF was coy on release of this information and demurred at an official warning. After much persuasion VEGA was allowed to use the information, which fitted nicely with appeals from the Food Commission to publish the results in its Magazine. The manufacturers of the supplements vented their combined wrath on the MAFF and have since undertaken to monitor the contents and labelling of these products carefully. Nonetheless, one retailer’s own brand has declared whey as the main ingredient in its kelp tablets, which could otherwise be of special nutritional interest to strict vegetarians. Other examples, sold in chemists and health-food store, are needlessly and possibly confusingly “improved” with additional sources of iron and calcium. And we have not yet satisfied our qualms over contents of heavy metals. We haven’t the funds to do this, but have to hope that the trade will monitor its products and be able to publish assurances. We can at least assure the FSA that warnings of overdosing have established precedent described by us and in the files of MAFF, their forerunners.
12. Christmas Cheer. The Turkey’s Getting Fat.
12.1 Paracetamol broke into VEGA’s concerns just before Christmas some years ago, when VEGA was the Vegetarian Society’s Research Section. A day or two before that 25th December the press picked up a coroner’s report on a death of a victim – a young male- of paracetamol poisoning. The assessment volunteered the further comment that the victim’s vegetarian lifestyle probably contributed to the consequences of the accident, making him unduly susceptible to such intoxication, the vegetarian diet being poorer in its content of the essential amino-acid than a non-veggie regime. This was certainly a hot story and had us busy on the phone all over the festive days, searching for more information on a delicate matter with confidential detail that the coroner could not go into further.
12.2 We knew that paracetamol could be taken in large doses to the point where the body’s resources of protective processes involved in elimination and detoxification could be overwhelmed, with a great range in the threshold between safety and danger (there are many such genetically-determined differences in the functions of enzymes in the liver). We knew too that, excellent as aspirin and the salicylates are as pain-killers and in other functions, the weaker pain-killer paracetamol is preferred for its greater perceived safety in the treatment of children and adolescents and in the lower risks of causing inflammation and bleeding in the gut. We know too that the antidotes to paracetamol toxicity, reinforcing the body’s resources, are sulfur-containing compounds, such as the amino-acids methionine and cysteine (commonly used as N-acetylcysteine). Some preparations of paracetamol are sold with a content of the antidote. Certainly the sulphur-containing amino-acids have great physiological and biochemical significance and an omnivorous diet would provide more of these components –and possibly too much in chronic consumption – than a veggie regime. (Farmers are keen to add methionine, made synthetically, as a growth booster in the diets of pigs. It is also important in improving the feet of non-human animals and the wool clips of sheep and goats).
12.3 Veggie diets are sometimes regarded as so restrictive as being equivalent to anorexia and the nutritional deficiencies deriving therefrom. Christmas is notable for its festivities and togetherness, but it is also associated with the isolation from the fun of the loners of the world, for whom the gloom of loneliness is raised; suicide is therefore an enhanced risk and paracetamol is an easily available agent to achieve this end. The drug is now sold in small amounts and with warnings, but a desperate, cold, and undernourished loner could and can find ways to accumulate lethal quantities by multiple purchases. In the absence of precise details of the coroner’s case we could only counsel the press with redoubled messages of goodwill and consideration to all living beings at festival times and to remind members of the FSA of this experience and of the importance of food on mood and of inviting ambience of communal celebration. (And it’s well to remember that carnival can mean good-bye to meat – carne, vale).
13. Public Debate Begins. Hallelujah and Amen.
13.1 VEGA seized its opportunity as the open meeting closed with time for questions (which we take to include comments and challenges). All the protestation by the FSA and the retail trade on their appreciation of the association of health with diet, and especially examples to schoolchildren, seem false when these vast food halls are entered through portals giving first on to counters selling cigarettes and tobacco. This is as seemly as opening a brothel in a cathedral. Serious, joined-up thinking, setting examples to the family, must acknowledge that smoking and sloth can undo the good of the most carefully considered diet. Shops selling foods and beverages should not be allowed to sell the weed in any form; or, in other words, shops licensed to sell tobacco and cigarettes should not be allowed to sell food and beverages. Changes already in train on sales of cigarettes etc in catering establishments and licensed premises foreshadow the stipulations we are recommending. It is lamentable that a politician with a background in the cigarette industry and at one time a Minister of Health should be considered seriously for any future in government, so we were glad that the FSA is likely to entertain our recommendation in advance of significant parliamentary havering.
13.2 VEGA’s second interventions returned to earlier recommendations to relieve the FSA’s meetings (and many associated with it) of the obsession with the dismal litany of grievances and failures of the dire live/deadstock industry, whose output, with many subsidies, sees the meetings bogged down in the depressing entrails of the food industry. Swing and sway with the FSA is not quite the stance it can manage, but enlightening initiatives in positive and joined-up thinking in an earnest and educative way in the science of bromatology attracting the family and generating informed choices – in the way we like to think we act constructively – could replace the persistent gloom of the shambles and the grotty food chain with the excitement and national and global factors in farming outputs and distribution. What better way, then, with appropriate uplifting messages on World Food Day, celebrated this year on Sunday 16th October (and Monday, the 17th, happens to be the start of National Giving Week – a nice coincidence).
14. Coming Soon – World Food Day, Belfast, and Christmas TV
14.1 We therefore asked the FSA to notice WFD and Harvest Festivals with joyous messages for the Sunday sermons on All Things, Bright and Beautiful (but not Bootiful), roundelays of the sheep and the Good Shepherd and Crimond and the 23rd Psalm (unfortunately in those heathen Less Favoured Areas belief that the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb doesn’t hold true); and even as the congregation’s ovens turn up on the Sunday roast and the erstwhile Garden of Eden and Babylon are rent with strife and war, we can enjoy the fruits and vegetables of the earth at 5 (plus)-a-day levels, as well as cereals and pulses, as in the harvests of the Old Testament, even if the fallows of old now amount to not much more than set-aside strips and headlands. The good man was to rest and care for his beast and not overwork it in a forerunner of the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s 5 Freedoms, and the sins of gluttony and sloth recognized the thrall of obesity and syndrome X.
14.2 We learn from the tale of Daniel and his colleagues Shadrach, Mischak, and Abednego at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar the story of the first recorded epidemiological experiment, albeit with statistical and blinding shortcomings that would not pass muster today. Nor could the politicking at Court, including interventions by the Royal Eunuch, be rehearsed – we think – today. Daniel and the lads would not defile themselves with the portion of the King’s meat nor with the wine which he drank (to this day kosher wine, passed by the highest rabbi, wouldn’t get far in the listings). Beseeching the Royal Eunuch and his good offices the quartet pleaded with the courtiers to “let them give pulse to eat and water to drink”. The King put them to test for 10 days’ proof, at the end of which “their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children who did eat the portion of the King’s meat” (so there was a control group. In veterinary terms fattening cattle has been discarded as a term for finishing and approved fleshing and muscling, so we have to assume that the hi carbo and GI diet spared the lads a fate worse than death. Further, the OT adds that “And in all matter of wisdom and understanding that the King enquired of them he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm” (Today’s version of these last experts would be recognizable as modern journalists and politicians).
14.3 All done without experiments on animals 3 millennia ago when thought for food was young, and innocent of genetic and evolutionary complications. World Food Day is not the only occasion for uplifting thoughts on farming and food: the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures this year, televised live on Channel 4, are intended for parents and children, and deal with the history and evolutionary aspects of the food chain (for more details, see the RI’s website). Prof John Krebs, recently retired head of the Food Standards Agency, will be presenting the lectures in what we consider an excellent educational way, even if provoking debate without total agreement. These are initiatives to continue. And we urge animal welfarists and campaigners for health, the environment, and the land to attend the next Open Meeting of the Food Standards Agency’s Board, pursuing we hope some of the themes we have succeeded in raising. They need support. The next meeting, which will be webcast, will be held in the Hilton Hotel, Belfast. For further details of this public event phone 01772 767 730 or fax 01772 767555 or email: email@example.com.