We’ve heard Edwina Currie cracking open the debate about salmonella
in eggs. BSE continues to claim victims and cause problems for farmers
and food retailers.
E-coli was another genuine disaster. The debate about genetically
modified foods continues to rage. Now we have major newspaper,
television and radio stories linking milk to Crohn’s Disease.
The story began with the announcement last Monday by the Government that
one-fifth of pasteurised milk samples from 16 dairies in Northern
Ireland contained traces of an organism that causes Johne’s Disease -
inflammation of the bowels in cows.
Doctors are divided over whether there is any link between Crohn’s and
the organism that is know to cause the disease in cows. And the
Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
and the National Association for Crohn’s disease claimed the health risk
was minimal to non-existent, but still the media couldn’t resist. A
quick scan of a few headlines, such as the Independent’s ’Ban raw milk
now, say campaigners’ gives a rather different spin to the story.
Tesco and Sainsbury’s were at the forefront of the retail response, and
got in with remarkable speed. On the evening of the initial
announcement, news bulletins quoted their precautionary decisions to ask
suppliers to increase the length of the pasteurisation process as part
of the first ’scare’ story. The message was then carried throughout the
national media on the following day.
Others, such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose were playing it cool,
saying they had no such plans to change the pasteurisation process.
It seems to me that the ’milk scare’ is more in the minds of the
headline writers than on the slides of scientists’ microscopes, but it
is the supermarkets and dairy companies who have to take action.
That is a good example of PR risk management, and hats off to both
Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s PR teams for an excellent pre-emptive strike
designed to put their customers’ minds at rest.
It just makes me wonder at times whether all the food scares are what
they are ’hyped’ up to be. In the final analysis, it is usually the
supermarkets and other retailers who shoulder the burden of comforting
We all need food. Of course we all must know facts when situations
develop that have a potential impact on our health. The danger of hype
without foundation is the risk of crying wolf.