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FOOD SCARE: A butcher in Belgium cutting pork chops. Meat and all dairy products are off the shelves after a dioxin scare in Europe.

3 CHEERS for modern food

Jun 9, 1999

TODAY we're reeling from the great dioxin alert.

Before that, there was the mad cow shock.

You can probably recall other scandals involving suspect pesticides, additives or preservatives.

And you know, of course, what must follow every new food scare: Cries of how modern edibles have become health threats, cancer risks etc.

If you ask me, though, these alerts can be a good thing.

As our thoughts focus on food, we also realise how far we've come.

Let me explain.

This latest fuss is over the discovery that certain European dairy or dairy-related products could be poisonous - thanks to tainted animal feed used in Belgium.


Now, it is probably true to say that, a few hundred years ago, such an episode could never have happened.

And, to an extent, that really is because those were the pure, clean old days.

Here's one sense in which they were pure: Animal feed or plant fertiliser - actually, the whole farming process - was always "organic". That is to say, derived from "natural" sources, largely unenhanced by human science.

But yields were low.

Regularly, crops and livestock would be devastated by disease.

But organic? Yes, sir.

Sigh. Our ability to feed exploding populations on relatively smaller plots of land, thanks to modern farming, is one of our great success stories.


In relative terms, the cost of food has also fallen as yields have skyrocketed.

If this path to progress must occasionally be punctuated by a health scare or two, that's a price worth paying, I say.


But in any case it would be hard to imagine a 15th century dioxin scare.

To put it bluntly, the 15th century community wouldn't know enough to be scared.

You see, it's not just our practical agricultural skills that have grown. Scientific knowledge has also increased tremendously.

We know a lot more about poisons and toxic substances. We can now analyse foods using supremely sensitive instruments.

In other words, we are much more likely to spot a food scare in-the-making.

And thanks to a world press which sometimes appears a little too eager to alarm the entire world community about the dangers - even when the health risks, in some cases, can be minor.

Minor - unless you're shovelling vast platefuls down your gullet.


This isn't to say that we should ignore health scares. Or even take them lightly.

In fact, it could be true that the food industry has reached a dangerous new threshold: With genetically altered foods (the so-called "frankenstein foods"), we could genuinely be entering a brave new world.

One in which we must tread very, very lightly.

But let's have a bit of balance, please.

And let's have three cheers for modern food - well, most of it, most of the time.

The Electric New Paper. Copyright 1999
Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.