Date Published: 22/08/2001
Author: Eduardo Goncalves
A recent Ecologist survey revealed that 72 per cent of people in Britain do not believe the government when it tells them something is safe. With radioactive chocolate, nuclear beef and mutant part-human pork lurking around the human food chain over the years, Eduardo Goncalves wonders why the figure is so low.
This story starts – as so many do – at the British nuclear industry’s ‘flagship’ site at Sellafield in Cumbria. The plant carries out nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste management, and includes the Calder Hall nuclear power station and Drigg nuclear waste dump.
Most people know that plants such as these release radioactive chemicals into the open environment. Few know just how many.
The box on page 33 lists them, yet we are assured they are all perfectly safe. Each year the government produces a report (called RIFE – Radioactivity in Food and the Environment) that reinforces that notion, yet it is so long and impenetrable, and the accompanying press release so comforting, that it rarely gets reported.
A careful examination of the report’s pages, however, reveals a different story. Local fishermen are at risk, it says, through handling ‘hot’ fishing gear. If you’ve got a houseboat on the River Ribble you could be getting a nasty dose of external radiation. Trout and the popular local lava bread may be contaminated. Milk has high concentrations of strontium-90, tritium, sulphur-35, iodine-129 and caesium. Plutonium levels in elderberries are elevated, whilst carbon-14 in fruit is ‘excessive’. You get free sulphur-35 in barley and wheat, tritium and carbon-14 in vegetables, and caesium, plutonium and strontium on your mushrooms. Duck and beef comes with technetium-99 (discharged into the sea, but blown back onto land), cabbages are laced with promethium-147, and seaweed (used locally as an organic soil fertiliser) is polluted with ruthenium-106. The press release, though, reports happily that levels are within accepted safety standards.
Can we believe them? In 1957, a fire at the plant – then known as Windscale – precipitated a disaster, and caused a near-catastrophe. We now know that its true extent was deliberately censored from government reports in order to prevent damage to the US-UK ‘special relationship’, and that consequently, dangerously radioactive milk continued to be sold for human consumption. To have done otherwise would have made a mockery of the safety assurances from government officials at the time.
One bizarre and hitherto unreported aspect of the disaster was that a huge consignment of chocolate became contaminated with radiation. Shortly after the accident, confectionery manufacturer Rowntree discovered that a large quantity of ‘chocolate crumb’ had been made using milk contaminated with radioactive iodine released by the fire at Windscale. They immediately demanded that the government take responsibility for disposing of it at a nuclear waste dump, and compensate them for their loss.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – which ran Windscale – had other ideas, though. It was terrified about the implications if this were to become public knowledge. So they came up with an ingenious plan – pack the chocolate up in plain wrappers and feed it to the nation’s soldiers. Or as a UKAEA official put it:
‘I think we ought to be very careful about taking any steps to dispose of this chocolate crumb in any secretive way. It would be extremely embarrassing if the Press got hold of the matter and suggested that we were so impressed with the possible danger to public health if this chocolate were to be consumed that we had buried it in one of our waste disposal sites such as Whittle Hill.
‘The ideal solution would be for this material to be bought by one of the Service Departments and made up into chocolate bars for consumption by Servicemen in a way which would give no indication of the name of the manufacturer.’
No one would know, and there would be no cause for alarm. By the time anyone became ill, those responsible for the decision would probably be long gone. And most importantly, it would defuse the growing threat of legal action from Rowntree, thereby avoiding further damaging news stories about Britain’s fledgling nuclear programme: ‘Such proceedings would lead to a renewal of publicity for the Windscale accident which we would obviously want to avoid.’
Choc ’til you drop
After protracted negotiations, Rowntree and UKAEA came to a settlement: the chocolate crumb would be dumped in a nuclear waste dump. Rowntree would receive no compensation, but in return nor would it become public knowledge that its factory at Egremont had manufactured radioactive chocolate bars – not so much ‘Black Magic’ as blackmail. So Britain’s soldiers were spared the opportunity of becoming unwitting garbage cans for nuclear waste. But have we, as ordinary consumers, been so lucky?
It has long been the practice of the nuclear military-industrial complex (and its cousins in the biological and chemical warfare business) to use animals in its experiments. As well as rats and mice, the nuclear industry has also used larger mammals such as pigs, sheep, dogs, and monkeys. From beagles to baboons, goats to guinea pigs, and horses to hamsters, any animal – it seems – will do in the interests of military experimentation. Between 1993 and 1996, for example, nearly 35,000 animals laid down their lives for their country in military laboratories at Porton Down, Alverstoke and Farnborough.4 Hundreds of donkeys – tied up in the Nevada desert by British scientists wanting to test nuclear weapons – gave the world fascinating data about the effects of a bomb-blast.5 Or rather they did not – most of the reports are still officially secret.
Some experiments are too cruel to detail here, but the programme raises an interesting question: what on earth happens to all those animal carcasses? The Chief Executive of the Defence Evaluation Research Agency, responsible for the trials, recently declined to answer this question.6 One official at the Home Office (which authorises such experiments) suggested that they were incinerated and dumped, but was not sure. It was not their responsibility, she said, to dispose of the bodies after such trials. If it seems a shame to waste all that chocolate, it seems positively criminal to waste so much beef, does it not? Apparently, some government officials agree.
Up until 1985, there was a government laboratory which fed dairy cows with tritium in experiments sponsored by what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF). That establishment, the National Institute for Research in Dairying at Shinfield, near Reading, has now closed its doors, although some of its work has since been transferred to other facilities. Mindful of the limits to the public purse, in 1961 researchers there came up with a terrific cost-saving wheeze – to sell produce from its herds to the general public:
‘We have to decide what to do with the milk and carcasses from these experimental animals. Although we would be very unpopular if it leaked out that radioactive meat and milk were being sold by the Institute – and indeed one can imagine a local press sensation and questions in the House [of Commons] – public money should clearly not be wasted: each animal destroyed would cost #80–100 and furthermore the extra expenditure might make us curtail our experimental programme.’
Officials at MAFF recognised that to do this might pose a ‘genetic risk’ to consumers, but nevertheless affirmed that as far as they were concerned ‘there would be no significant risk involved’ and therefore that ‘on that basis [MAFF] would suggest that the material could be consumed by the public’.
There is no file in the public record which indicates the fate of the Institute’s produce. But the fiscal prudence displayed by these government officials – of which Gordon Brown must surely be envious – has apparently found echo much more recently... this time in the murky world of the genetic engineering industry.
The last few years has seen a huge new business sector emerge around the cloning and genetic manipulation of animals. Heralded as a ‘saviour science’ on a number of fronts – including health and agriculture – it is actually a massively imprecise science that commonly results in large numbers of ‘failed’ animals. And these, as astute government officials first discovered in the 1960s, have got to go somewhere...
Astonishingly, that somewhere – in the minds of at least two biotech companies and the government watchdog bodies designed to look after our interests as consumers – should be the deep freeze unit at your local supermarket. Government ministers have authorised the setting up of what they call an ‘applications system’ to oversee the recycling of, for example, pork from pigs bred to contain human genes. Or, put another way, the government considers cannibalism OK for UK consumers.
Genetic engineering experiments on animals involve hundreds of thousands of animals every year. As well as pigs and sheep, cows, cats, dogs and even deer now find themselves on the receiving end. However, as few as 0.1 per cent of the experiments are successful, and – as BSE and foot and mouth have shown – there is a limit to what the knacker’s yard (or the local incinerator) can cope with.
One company which has been breeding genetically-engineered pigs with human-compatible hearts (for use in heart transplant operations) believed it had stumbled onto a novel solution to the problem of wastage when it asked for permission to market ‘failed’ pigs from its programmes for food.
Its proposal to sell them to consumers was first considered by government committees as early as 1990. Documents from the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) reveal that during that year, ‘two specific submissions were received relating to proposals for the food use of animals’ from companies attempting to breed animals with human genes.
Green light for a gene lunch
In its report, the committee declared that, as far as it was concerned, the offspring of animals involved in experiments – including those where ‘it is possible that in some animals the gene may have been incorporated only into certain cells’ – were, in its view ‘normal’. Therefore, it saw ‘no reason why they should not be released into the food chain.’
However – adroitly anticipating the vagaries of public opinion – it concedes that there might be ‘considerable public concern.’ Indeed. Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for one of the companies wanting to engage in this unique recycling programme said it felt encouraged to proceed by the government’s response. One report in particular, she said, appeared to give a green light.
The report in question, The Ethics of Genetic Modification and Food Use, is an educative read. It establishes its credentials to grapple with such sensitive issues early on when it asserts that members of the Jewish community were unlikely to find fault with these foodstuffs. Its reasons included the fact that ‘Jews will readily accept the transplant of an organ even if it originated from a pig.’9 On the niggling question of how to offset the costs of failure incurred by gene-manipulation companies, it sympathises with their plight and declares: ‘The farm animals or other food organisms so produced should be used as food rather than discarded needlessly.’ The report was followed up by another from the ACNFP (remember: this is the government-appointed ‘watchdog’ body) which reiterated its view that ‘to release these animals into the food chain did not raise any particular food safety or ethical concerns.’
In fact, the law in Britain already allows for the recycling of animals used in (non-genetic) experiments into the human food chain (a fact confirmed by the Home Office press office). Under Section 14 of the Animal Scientific Procedures Act 1986, animals licensed to take part in experiments may be ‘released’ from the Act so that they can be ‘re-used’. So, what the heck – why not GM pigs and sheep, or at least their offspring?
Well, the problem – according to the ACNFP – is the consumer. In order to respect the rather tiresome demand of shoppers that they should be able to make an informed selection, food containing any ‘ethically sensitive copy genes’ – in other words, human genes – should preferably be labelled. Its recommendation was passed to another committee, the Food Advisory Committee (FAC). The latter committee – although inexplicably less enthusiastic about the prospect of promoting part-human burgers to discerning shoppers – accepted the ACNFP’s ‘safety assessment’ and suggested that such ‘food should be clearly labelled’. Moreover, it added: ‘The Committee [the ACNFP, that is] would need to consider the form of labelling which might apply in these circumstances.' Readers’ suggestions would be appreciated.
Relax. There’s no need to post them – yet. The company breeding pigs with human-compatible hearts (perhaps unsurprisingly) withdrew its application at this point, and before its demise officials at MAFF told me that ‘to date, no genetically modified large farm animal’ has yet entered the food chain.
Hang on a minute... why was the official so careful with his choice of words? Hardly grounds for reassurance. Neither is the fact that the approvals procedure for such applications remains in place, and that the ACNFP could therefore in theory permit ‘the use of a GM animal for use in the human food chain’.
Ready steady crook...
In fact, in the complex world of government food safety committees, it emerges that the ACNFP is not the only body ready to swallow the unthinkable (or allow us to do so). Another supposed watchdog body, the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), has also been authorised to ‘undertake, as appropriate, case by case assessment of deliberate release or marketing applications for genetically modified animals.’
The government’s open-minded approach to spawning a new genre of recipe books is sadly not matched by its attitude to naming its real authors, the biotech corporations. When asked to identify the companies that had approached it, a government spokesman sniffed: ‘all information submitted to the ACNFP is treated as commercially confidential until such time as Agriculture and Heath Ministers give food safety clearance to a product. We are therefore unable to release the names of the Companies who submitted these proposals.’
Happily, however, The Ecologist has received written confirmation from one of the companies that it was they who had sought to make a unique contribution to British cuisine. We have chosen not to name them here, partly for legal reasons, and partly because we would not want to deflect attention from the courageous contribution made by government officials paid by taxpayers to make things easier for powerful corporations, regardless of the consequences to the consumer. Plus this article should have given you enough of the how for you to work out for yourself the who...
But why? Just what drives corporations and governments to come up with such abominable schemes which are so obviously bound to cause howls of outrage? Is it all part of some dark global conspiracy? I don’t think so. Is it a sado-masochistic desire for vilification? Hmm. Or is it, quite simply, that they are certain they can get away with it?
Eduardo Goncalves lives in Portugal, and grows his own food. His new column, Sick Century, which will bring abominations such as the above to light, begins next month in The Ecologist.