Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 13/07/2003)

The crocodile smile has no solace for the cockle fishers
HSE regulations will remove the removers
IDS takes on the superstate
No bite on reality

The crocodile smile has no solace for the cockle fishers

Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency was publicly confronted last Thursday by representatives of a £20-million-a-year industry that faces extinction at his hands. They wanted to know why he was prepared to to close it down on the basis of a scientific test rejected as hopelessly flawed by every other country in the EU.

At the agency's board meeting in Kensington, London, Sir John was asked by Dr Peter Hunt of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, flanked by two of the three biggest employers in the UK cockle industry, why the FSA still relies on a toxin testing procedure which has been so comprehensively discredited.

Sir John handed over to Dr Andrew Wadge, his director of food safety policy, who, sidestepping the question, merely repeated the misleading line that he gave last week in a letter to The Sunday Telegraph.

The cause of the row, which has plunged Britain's cockle industry into crisis and deprived several thousand people of their livelihood, is a technique used by the government's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) to test for toxins in cockles.

It involves injecting mice with large doses of cockle-flesh mixed with solvents. The fact that many mice then go into fatal convulsions is taken by Cefas to indicate the presence of an unidentified toxin. On this basis Britain's three leading cockle-fishing areas, the Wash, the Thames estuary and south Wales, have all been closed.

But the Irish Food Standards Agency ordered that the same test be abandoned after discovering that it consistently gives false results, probably because the mice are killed by the solvents.

In the past two weeks, since I first reported the crisis in Britain's cockle industry, this newspaper has published two letters from officials defending the Cefas test.

The first, from Cefas's chief executive, Peter Greig-Smith, claimed its mouse test was specified by EU law and used by government laboratories in seven EU countries. The other, from Dr Wadge, repeated that the test is used by most EU countries.

The fact is that no other country in the world uses the mouse test as Cefas employs it, without controls and without ensuring that there is no "solvent carry over".

Last week Dr Hunt asked Sir John Krebs why it had taken the FSA months to come up with a scrappy one-page summary of the Cefas testing procedure, when the Irish protocol, using a much more sensitive and up-to-date chemical analysis with which it replaced the mouse test, runs to 50 pages.

Dr Hunt's association has analysed protocols from every other EU country. Where mouse-testing is used, it is only in a much more sophisticated form. Holland abandoned using mice on animal welfare grounds.

Independent tests carried out in several countries on samples that Cefas found "toxin positive" consistently confirmed that its results were false. Yet on this basis a lucrative industry has been brought to its knees.

Dr Wadge claimed in his letter last week that 16 of Britain's 19 cockle-harvesting areas are still open. What he failed to explain was that the three closed areas account for more than 90 per cent of production.

This is known only too well by others at Thursday's meeting, such as Andrew Ratley of Kershaw's, on the Thames estuary, currently losing £150,000 a week, and Rory Parsons, who runs a processing plant near Swansea and has had to lay off most of his workforce of 120.

On Thursday's evidence, it seems Sir John has been as seriously misled as anyone else as to why his agency's reputation is now on the line.

HSE regulations will remove the removers

An almost comical crisis is blowing up over the Health and Safety Executive's plans to impose astronomically costly regulations on asbestos next April.

Thanks to the HSE's irresponsible distortion of the dangers of asbestos, insurers are demanding such crippling premiums from the HSE's own licensed asbestos companies that these are going out of business in droves, threatening to leave the regulations unworkable.

When the HSE's Control of Asbestos at Work regulations were published last year, supposedly to implement an EU directive, they were so badly and unscientifically drafted that the contractors anticipated a bonanza worth billions of pounds (the HSE's own original estimate of the cost of the regulations was £8 billion).

Lacking any in-house expertise on asbestos, the HSE was talked into whipping up a scare based on a fundamental confusion between the genuinely dangerous "blue" and "brown" forms of asbestos, and the much less dangerous "white asbestos", a wholly different chemical that is one of our commonest building materials.

Using wholly fanciful statistics, the HSE so exaggerated the dangers of white asbestos that next year almost every business in the country would have been calling on the specialist contractors for "expert advice", many to be ripped off on a colossal scale.

But the HSE's scheme has rebounded on it. Its claims were so wild that the insurers have taken fright. Only one firm in the country, Miles Smith, is now prepared to insure asbestos workers, on behalf of a Lloyd's syndicate.

Last week it confirmed that premiums for a typical medium-size asbestos removal firm, which have already risen in two years from £35,000 to £75,000, will soon rise again to more than £250,000.

To date more than 40 of 800 specialist firms have given up, and if the insurers themselves back out of asbestos, as seems possible, the HSE will be left stranded. By the time the new regulations come into force there may be no firms left to do the work.

The Government will have to learn the hard way that it is not a good idea to leave officials to dictate the law, without checking whether they know what they are talking about.

IDS takes on the superstate

There may have been a sense of deja vu last week at the outrage over a European Food Safety Authority ruling that Upper Austria cannot declare itself a "GM-free zone". This neatly paralleled the farcical scene three years ago when the Welsh Assembly, led by the farm minister, Christine Gwyther, voted to declare Wales "GM-free".

After talking to officials, Miss Gwyther sheepishly returned to the chamber to report that the Assembly had no power to ban GM crops. What she did not explain was that this was because "competence" to dictate GM policy had been handed to Brussels in 1990.

One of the hardest principles for many people to grasp about the way we are now governed is that once power to legislate in some area of policy has been surrendered to Brussels, national parliaments (let alone Wales or Upper Austria) no longer have any right to make their own laws.

This was what Iain Duncan Smith meant in Prague last week, in saying he wanted the EU to move forward to a union based on "intergovermentalism" rather than remain stuck with the outdated "supranationalism" on which the "European project" has been based since 1950.

Alas, this is so little understood that first Mr Duncan Smith must explain what supranationalism means: namely Brussels's power to dictate to nation states what they must do, against their wishes. The GM confusion is a good starting point.

No bite on reality

In the row over corruption in Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, little attention has been focused on the corrupting effect that that organisation has had on our own system for gathering official statistics.

The need to comply with Eurostat rules has rendered virtually unusable such publications as the Blue Book, which records UK Government spending - and no one could be more aware of this than the Office of National Statistics itself.

Meanwhile businesses spend hours filling in meaningless forms such as Eurostat's "Prodcom" survey intended to itemise Community products.

My favourite example comes from one of Britain's leading makers of false teeth. Finding no entry for "dentures", the nearest thing to a box relevant to his products was "food processing machinery". "Given the number of units we produce," he wrote, "I understand we have now been classified as the country's largest manufacturer of food processing machinery."