Britain: Food poisoned by big business

New figures published last month by the Pesticides Residue Committee (PRC) for the British government have raised serious concerns over the safety of fresh fruit and vegetables, both imported and UK grown produce. The government discovered levels of controlled pesticides in foods that exceed legal and safety limits.

Dicofol, a suspected hormone disrupter, which is similar to the insecticide DDT, was found on samples of strawberries grown in the UK although the chemical is not approved for use in the country. All soft citrus fruit was found to contain levels of Imazal and other residues that the PRC classed as "an unacceptable risk to consumer groups". 83% of grapefruits and 93% of lemons also showed traces of pesticides. Levels of organophosphate pesticides on peaches and nectarines also exceeded legal and safety limits.

Unsafe levels of the carbamate insecticide Aldicarb, described by the World Health Organisation as "extremely hazardous" due to its effect on the nervous system, was discovered on potatoes. Iprodione exceeded legal limits in celery, and lindane was found on samples of mushroom, despite the fact that both chemicals are not approved for use in Britain. Lindane is banned in the EU due to fears of a link to breast cancer.

The safety of other food produce, such as bread and fish, is also under threat. Residues were found on 97% of fresh salmon samples. Both fresh and tinned salmon also contained DDT.

Cocktail of chemicals

The PRC claims that none of these findings should cause consumer concern. However, the legal and safety levels used by agencies such as the PRC only relate to each chemicals impact on human health in isolation- they do not take into account the effects of mixing chemicals. Current levels of pesticide residue may not be harmful on their own but the effect of consuming a cocktail of these chemicals over a long period of time is largely unexplored.

These findings represent yet another failure of the farming industry to supply safe, affordable and good quality food. After the BSE/CJD (‘Mad cow disease’) scare and the foot and mouth crisis, both of which cost taxpayers vast sums of money, many people have lost all confidence in the safety and quality of the food we eat, particularly animal produce.

Over the last decade, the meat industry has been discredited to such an extent that there has been a consumer shift away from eating meat. Now that samples of fruit and vegetables have been deemed unsafe we find ourselves wondering if anything on the supermarket shelves is strictly edible.

Widespread scepticism of Genetically Modified (GM) foods is also growing, not from an irrational fear of scientific and technological progress but from the mistrust of corporations such as Monsanto (a key player in the development of GM foods), which ultimately will put profits before consumer safety. Many people feel they are being used as guinea pigs, as decisions about food production, including genetic engineering, are not being made on their behalf but in the interests of profit.

Little public confidence in food agencies

Confidence in the government and EU agencies, that supposedly maintain food safety, has followed the trend of disillusionment with establishment parties and the domination of big business politics. More than ever, farming is moving steadily towards agribusiness, and large corporations are controlling food production, especially supermarkets who have made enormous fortunes from the falling prices for farm produce whilst maintaining high prices for consumers.

The results from the PRC government findings will no doubt create more demand for organic food, which in the study, was found to be free of pesticides. Unfortunately, despite growing awareness of the low levels of food safety, it is poorer sections of society who are forced to live on lower quality foods and who cannot afford organic produce.

Socialists call for a plan of sustainable food production, drawn up by representatives of the farm workers’ unions, consumers and small farmers.

Agribusiness, including the giant pharmaceutical companies, should be taken into public ownership, under democratic workers’ control and management.

The entire food industry should be brought under democratic workers’ control and management to ensure the best standards and to supply good quality and affordable food for everyone.

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August 2002