27 November 1998

Farmers wont pick up bill for food safety – minister

FARMERS are not going to have to foot the bill for the food safety agency, food minister Jeff Rooker told the annual meeting of the Womens Food and Farming Union.

Responding to a question from Judy Goodman of the West Midlands branch, he said that at the moment most food safety costs are borne by local authorities. They spend an estimated £150-180m a year, while the government currently spends £25m on research and a further £19m on food safety issues.

Should more money be needed in a hurry this would have to come from food processors and retailers, said Mr Rooker.

Farmers would not be included in this group unless they were running farm shops. A flat rate payment of £100 a year would be charged to save the administrative costs of imposing a scale of charges.

Mrs Goodman had commended him for the way in which MAFF had picked up the bill for the cattle passports so far. Her only concern, she said, was that the envelopes were too small. Mr Rooker had not heard this complaint before but took the opportunity to deal with a regular one and explain why each passport is sent out individually. They are issued at the rate of 10,000/day, he said, and produced automatically by electronically scanning the information supplied by farmers. Information is not keyed in manually and the system identifies the animal rather than the farmer. He said that the passport helpline deals with 1000 calls a day.

Mr Rooker is one of the ministers concerned with biotechnology and, as already reported (FW News, Nov 13) genetically modified organisms were the subject of his address. So far, he said, GMOs were only to be found in foods containing soya and maize, in vegetarian cheese and tomato paste and that labelling should make this clear.

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The fact that in the USA genetically modified crops are not segregated is making labelling difficult but, he said, the USA is very slowly waking up to the fact that EU consumers take a different point of view from USA consumers. To date 59 suppliers of non-GM soya have been identified which is ensuring that producers in this country can choose whether or not they use GM soya. Scientists are able to check for GMOs.

Prof Sir Colin Berry, chairman of the advisory committee on pesticides, also told the meeting that he feared that GMOs were "going along the irradiation path." Irradiation had been rejected by prejudice, he said. Had it been accepted it may well have prevented much of the food poisoning of recent years.

He spoke about risks to health, and the way people react to statistics. "We worry about things we should not worry about and pay no attention to things that should cause us concern," he said, adding that because a thing was natural did not make it safe. An example of this was a new vegetable used in salads or stirfries which had caused much illness..

He said that radon and ultra violet, to which people pay little heed, are far more dangerous than any residue might be, and spoke of a moss killer that had been taken off the market because it contained a feared chemical yet there was an even greater amount of this chemical in an oven cleaner in regular use. He also said that removing abestos from buildings could cause more sickness than leaving it there.

Ann Rogers