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When food kills: BSE, E coli and disaster science
  1. Claire E Robertson

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    Edited by T H Pennington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, £25.00, pp 226. ISBN 0-198-52517-6

    Pennington delivers serious messages in this discursive, thought provoking book by sharing his insight into the failings of food safety (and other) inspectorates. Few have forgotten the hysteria associated with the Escherichia coli 0157 outbreak in central Scotland (linked to Barr’s butchers) or the salmonella in eggs scare when Edwina Currie was Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health. The situations leading to these and other food poisoning and public health scares are eloquently described throughout, alongside a narrative on the apparent failures of government officials to learn from history through subsequent presentation of new health scares. It is proposed that vCJD cases in humans and BSE cases in animals are a result of these failures. Details regarding the scientific uncertainties over cause, transmission, and scope of these diseases are discussed prior to the UK government’s early assumption that BSE was not likely to be of risk to human health, the future risks to human health from vCJD, and the conclusions of the Phillips inquiry into methods used so far to eradicate BSE and vCJD.

    The title indicates that food related incidents will be the principal subject of discussion; however this is not the case. Inferences are drawn throughout from events including the Aberfan tip mining disaster, the Piper Alpha North Sea oil disaster, and even the conditions within lunatic asylums since 1815. Repeated and detailed references to non-food disasters with catastrophic potential through high morbidity and mortality levels, as compared with the innocuous/unknown long term health problems associated with food scares like BSE somewhat trivialises the importance to public health of food safety scares, and renders the title misleading. Essentially, this is a non-technical book that describes (with reference to E coli, BSE, and other disasters) the history, the science, the politics, and most significantly, what went wrong. It may leave the reader concerned by the inspectorates’ shortcomings in the mitigation of public health incidents, but delivers an important message: inclusiveness and openness are essential to help avert wide scale disasters in the future.

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