Date: 31 October 2000
BETRAYED OVER BSE MARK II
Another Public Safety Fiasco
As the EDP has rightly said, the BSE inquiry has shown that the public were betrayed. The present Government, of course, is keen to say that it has turned its back forever on half-truths and cover-ups.
But the GM-contaminated oilseed rape fiasco has already shown us that it is business as usual.
Firstly, the Government’s safeguards were shown to be wholly inadequate - thousands of acres of farmland were contaminated by the rogue crops, while countless consumers have unknowingly bought GM products.
Worse still, it emerged that the Government sat on the information about the contamination for a whole month, while farmers were busy planting the contaminated seed! Indeed, it was only after Sweden went public that British ministers finally released the news, surreptitiously in a written Commons answer. If it had not been for the Swedish action, would MAFF ever have gone public?
And once again, in the Government’s determination to reassure the public, we got the familiar half truths. Nick Brown told us there was no risk of further contamination "because the GM variety is sterile and it is difficult to see how it could cross-pollinate with other plants". But Advanta, the company which sold the contaminated seed, admitted that only "a high proportion" was sterile - a very different matter.
Just as serious was the evidence that the seed contamination had originally occurred because of cross pollination in Canada over something like 4 kms. Yet all these months later the buffer zones on the Government’s GM trials stand at just 50 m, while the ministries continue to consider the matter. In the meantime our countryside serves as an open air laboratory.
On the food safety front, has the affair demonstrated any diminution in the MAFF culture of secrecy and complacency? Hardly! The supposedly independent Food Standards Agency, despite all its brave talk about openness and transparency, stayed silent about the seed scandal until MAFF was forced to go public. Even then the FSA was entirely reassuring and did nothing to protest the loss of consumer choice that had resulted.
That the FSA is showing the old MAFF failings is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, the FSA’s chief officer is a full time civil servant and former career bureaucrat at MAFF, as are a large swathe of FSA officials.
The FSA’s director, Sir John Krebs, has been brought in from outside, but Sir John was on record as rejecting consumer concerns over GM foods before he was appointed. Since Sir John’s appointment the agency, which takes its advice from exactly the same old sources and committees, has refused to open up the question of the safety of GM foods, even though it was very quick to launch an investigation into organic food.
In short, those currently charged with protecting the public interest have done nothing to earn the public’s trust, or to indicate an open mind on issues where big commercial interests collide with public safety.
The Government’s methods of issuing information appear wholly unchanged when it comes to GM crops which have all the hallmarks of BSE mark II.
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