Dangers of leaving an information vacuum

01 July 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

ONE of the most predictable upsets in our house is the dialogue that inevitably follows my wife attempting to throw out food that has met its use-by label date.

I routinely argue that this is advisory data but she, conversely, believes that it has been placed there for a purpose which should be recognised.

I fully understand the concept but inwardly I rail against throwing out perfectly usable food because we over- ordered or changed our plans without prior consultation with the contents of our fridge. I’m certainly not sure which of us is right but, deep down, I suspect that we both are.

In a recent survey of 2,000 people, carried out by the website Power of Opinions, some 28% of people across the UK ignored these warnings.

There is some regional variation with 21% in London and 34% in the north-west ignoring the warnings and one can understand people’s confusion when the chief executive of Morrisons admits that he uses the “smell test” to ascertain whether food remains safe to eat and the MD of Waitrose telling The Times that he often ate fruit and veg, cheese, meat, sausages and bacon a day or two afterwards.

Women are slightly more likely to ignore the dates, 30% v. 26% when compared with men. What do you do?

This poses an interesting conundrum. We know that these “use by” dates are placed on food for safety reasons but we also feel empowered to question the margin of safety if it seems excessive to us.

Additionally, we recognise that the concept of a nanny state is something against which many of us feel compelled to rail until, of course, an intimate visit from salmonella or E. coli bacteria causes us to re-assess the situation.

As we all know, to our cost, the symptoms of food poisoning usually begin 1-3 days after eating contaminated food, although some toxins can cause food poisoning within a much shorter time. Are we somehow inured to the significance of the advice because our food is mostly presented to us in a sanitised and arms-length form? If the pâté comes wrapped in Tesco Finest packaging, are we less likely to believe it could be harmful as it sits there a little tired and emotional in our fridge? Or is it simply that, deep down, we feel we have enough information to make our own decisions?

One of the reasons that millions of voters across Europe have red a warning salvo in the direction of the political classes is that European central government has become detached and isolated from the needs and wishes of its electorate.

Many of us feel that rather less attention to the shape of bananas or the acceptability of smoked foods and rather more interest shown in key issues such as education, health and economic stability would make us feel more comfortable with the concept of remote government.

Add to this the sheer unbelievability of some decisions and you can hear the nation collectively mutter that you couldn’t make it up! 

I remember, perhaps ve years ago, talking to a regional manager of a famous sandwich chain whose business has been built on the promise that every day’s products are completely fresh and who used, every evening, to give any unsold sandwiches and other food to the homeless in his part of London.

That sensible and altruistic action came to an end when European legislation left his company exposed to potential litigation and now we see that supermarkets are wasting thousands of tonnes of surplus food because subsidies for green energy make it cheaper to turn it into biogas than to donate it to the homeless and the hungry.

The charity FairTrade reports that only 2% of surplus food generated by the food industry is redistributed (source: all-party parliamentary enquiry into hunger and food poverty) and that British households throw away 4.2 million tonnes of food a year. However, reducing food waste in the home could save the average family some £700 a year (source: WRAP) at a time when, despite the encouraging signs of economic recovery, most British households are still feeling the pinch.

In the end, this all signals a lack of joined-up government when taxpayers’ money is being used to fund the production of anaerobic digestion plants when there are between five and seven million people currently in food poverty in the UK – that’s something in the region of 9% of the population.

There are currently 82 such plants in the UK with a further 213 having received planning permission but food poverty is not, currently, considered a priority. FairTrade has found that much of the food sent for destruction is still t for human consumption but there are no plans to ascertain the scale of the problem.

The net result is that, individually, we find ourselves taking daily decisions which my wife would describe as gambling with our health because there is little public understanding or trust in the food labelling system or the Food Standards Agency itself.

The resultant manipulation of important data by individuals in an attempt to ll a vacuum caused by the absence of authoritative, scientific leadership sets a dangerous precedent. In a sound, well-balanced society, people willingly follow the rules which have been set out for the greater good, but is it not dangerous to allow people to interpret data because we have collectively failed to persuade people that the system is robust?

When the senior officers of two of the nation’s biggest retailers admit that they ignore the data that their companies are legally required to use as part of food standards labelling, is it any wonder people go off-piste and disregard the warnings?

We’ve seen the calamitous effect that such individual interpretation of data has had in the fields of antibiotic usage and childhood vaccination but perhaps we think that a couple of days of solitary confinement in the loo would aid compliance no end – so to speak.

In our own veterinary backyard, we have seen how leaving an information vacuum about vaccination intervals has altered the dynamics of small animal practice, so we could, perhaps, see this food labelling issue as an incentive to increase our engagement with our client base to ensure, as much as possible, that we can provide authoritative, useful and potentially critical information to build sound, lasting and valued relationships in a world where people are increasingly left to their own devices.

To me, that sounds like a far more positive approach.