REVIEW: Don't Worry, It's Safe to Eat
Remembering Britain’s food crises
Applying the lessons of BSE and foot and mouth to GM

Reviewed by Constantine Markides

Details:

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

Andrew Rowell, Earthscan Publications, 2003,
ISBN 1-85383-932-9,
268 pp, $29.95 (hardcover)

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January 7, 2005: The Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The BSE crisis (“mad cow disease”) and the foot and mouth outbreak in the U.K. are by no means distant history, but Andrew Rowell, the author of Don’t Worry, It’s Safe to Eat, wants to make sure we do not forget them. He revisits them to suggest that the corruption and venality that marked the British government’s response is present in the current U.K. and U.S. inquiries into the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods. There has been no GM crisis yet, insofar as a documented human death toll represents a crisis, but the glossy assurances by the British and American leadership that GM foods are safe to eat and the intimidation and vilification of scientists who have come public with less rosy findings suggest that perhaps we are not on the gilded path to food heaven that the shining full-page biotech advertisements in our magazines purport.

Take the British government’s response to BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which in its human form leads to the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In the mid '80s the first cows started dying. For the next ten years of the epidemic the government assured the public that the beef was safe to eat and could not be transmitted to humans, although practically every scientist with expertise in the area believed transmission was possible. Those scientists who came out suggesting that BSE was transmissible to humans were at best sidelined and dismissed as alarmist; at worst they received death threats, were fired, or lost tenure. Rowell shows how the investigative bodies were populist in rhetoric but in practice were committed to the meat and dairy industries, ensuring that the consumer they claimed to represent was kept in the dark. In one of the inquiries the grandmother of a child who died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was told to not talk to the press because of the effect that would have on the economy.

Rowell then examines the British government’s response to the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth, an infectious virus that affects cloven-hoofed animals but not humans. Over six million animals were slaughtered (another commission found the number closer to eleven million), often in brutal conditions. The EU Parliamentary Inquiry into foot and mouth said the British government’s decision to slaughter so many animals did little or nothing to stop the disease. Vaccination could have been used to treat the infected animals and possibly would have ended the epidemic in weeks but a trade law gave preference to slaughtering animals over vaccinating them. Fred Brown, a scientist who worked for decades on foot and mouth, called it an issue “governed not by science but by international trade.” The mass slaughter also proved beneficial to Snowie, a Scottish company that was paid £38.4 million to construct and manage the waste disposal site for the animal carcasses from northern England and Scotland. Coincidentally, one of the four brothers who run the Snowie companies donated £5000 to the Scottish Labor party just after the height of the foot and mouth outbreak.

The second half of the book details the findings of two scientists, Dr. Arpad Pustzai and Dr. Ignacio Chapela, and the attacks to which they have been subjected for making their research public (only a crime when the findings are inconvenient). Dr. Arpad Pustzai, a senior scientist at Rowett Research Institute, examined rats fed with GM potatoes and non-GM potatoes and found that the rats fed with GM potatoes had retarded organ growth and weaker immune systems. He presented his findings on the TV show World in Action. Soon thereafter he was removed from GM research, his Ph.D. students were shifted to other areas, and he was in effect fired when his contract expired three months later. The second scientist, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, found evidence that GM maize was somehow crossing the U.S./Mexico border and contaminating Mexican maize. He also found that the GM DNA was randomly fragmented in the maize, suggesting it was unstable. A potential 'Frankenstein maize' was bad press for biotech companies and at once Chapela was attacked as being an anti-science activist. Nature bowed to pressure by pro-GM groups like AgBioWorld Foundation and retracted the paper it had published of Chapela’s findings. Despite the fact that the Mexican government investigated Chapela’s claims and found his findings correct, Chapela remains a scientist non grata in the U.S.

In the Soviet Union there was loyalty to the party; now, as Rowell notes, there is loyalty to the company. The scientist may have replaced the priest, but the scientist is now being cowed or wooed into becoming a glorified corporate yes-man. It may not be as easy to demand ideological discipline in the hard sciences, which rely on innovation and dissent to evolve, as it is in the social sciences, which can better cozy up to the dogma of the day, but Rowell’s book suggests the scientific establishment is no torch-runner for truth, at least with regard to food issues.

“The public has been betrayed over BSE,” writes Rowell, “they have been betrayed over foot and mouth disease, they cannot be betrayed over GM” (p. 219). The book goes into great detail about the intricacies of the British crises and the corrupt commissions that paraded by with the lifespan of mayflies. The story of the BSE crisis may read like a saga at times (no, not another investigative body, not another acronym), but the details are important in revealing the inner workings of contrived investigations, political schmoozing and professional assassination, which in the end are as universal as meat and potatoes. It is through these details that we might sniff a hint of the forgotten past, remember it fully, and then, seeing the past rear like a vampire to make its old grisly rounds, stand as grim sentries in its path.

Constantine Markides is a writer living on Monhegan Island, Maine. He can be reached at cons76@yahoo.com.