Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dangerous salt phobia in Britain

Moves to cut salt levels in bacon and ham risk increasing potentially fatal cases of the paralysing food bug botulism, the Food Standards Agency has been warned. Ham processors are particularly concerned at moves to reduce salt content to 2.13g per 100g by 2010 and to 1.75g by 2012. They said their concern was not because of a resistance to change, but was related to the health risks. Other food sectors are also unhappy about the revised salt reduction targets from the watchdog, which they insist are putting consumers off sandwiches and ready meals.

The issue threatens to create a rift between the food industry and the agency. But health campaigners are urging the FSA to stand firm and to resist what they say is scaremongering from an industry reluctant to change its manufacturing practices. Malcolm Kane, an independent food technology consultant who advises the campaign group Consensus Action of Salt in Health, suggested that the objections from industry were because companies feared the shelf-life of products may have to be reduced below the current average of ten-day "use by" dates: "I'm disappointed. It is just a feeble excuse for doing nothing about salt levels. They don't want to lower salt levels because they are nervous about consumer reaction and people not liking the taste with less salt."

The agency suggested last month that 14,000 premature deaths a year could be avoided if adults reduced salt intake to 6g a day. The current average is 8.6g a day, already down from 9.5g in 2001.

Claire Cheney, director-general of the Provision Trade Federation, which represents leading processed meat companies, has denounced the targets as unrealistic and a potential risk to human health. "If you have not got sufficient preservative in a product like ham you get pockets where the salt levels are too low to prevent the formation of the botulism toxin."

She told The Grocer magazine: "This will force us to reduce it [the shelf-life] further and with that come serious food safety concerns, not least the risk of botulism." She said that salt was in the product for technological reasons not for taste. Her view is supported by the British Meat Processors Association. Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, its technical manager, said: "We are very worried about the stricter targets and believe that reducing salt further has implications for food safety and shelf life of products," she said.

Other trade associations are also objecting to further salt cuts. Jim Winship, the chairman of the British Sandwich Association, denounced the targets as "absolutely staggering". He said: "We are already getting complaints from retailers that consumers don't like the blandness of many sandwiches to meet existing salt targets. Sandwich makers don't add salt to sandwiches at all but it is in products such as cheese, bacon and ham. We'll soon be at a point where people stop buying sandwiches and make them at home where they add as much salt as they want. This would affect an important industry. We sell 2.8 billion packs of sandwiches a year with a market value of 5.25 billion pounds."

Ready-meal manufacturers such as Northern Foods and Kerry Foods, which are represented by the Chilled Food Association, are also anxious that further salt reductions will affect their œ9 billion a year market. Kaarin Goodburn, the secretary-general, said: "We are already reformulating many recipes but we have got reports that consumers don't like the taste especially in some healthy ranges of meals, such as lasagne, where there has been a decline in sales. What's the incentive to reformulate if it results in falling sales? People are already putting in lots more herbs instead of salt but many people don't like the taste. " Peter Sherratt, the general secretary of the Salt Association, said that feed-back from its members suggested that the agency targets had gone too far."


Final grade school exams in Britain expected to show quarter of pupils without grasp of basics

Fewer children are expected to start secondary school in September with a decent grasp of the basics, according to official forecasts

The number of 11-year-olds reaching national standards in English, mathematics and science will drop across the board, it is predicted. Sats results published next week are expected to show a quarter of pupils failed to reach the level expected of their age in maths. At least one-in-five is predicted to fail in English.

It follows new rules introduced for the first time this year - preventing schools "inflating" scores for thousands of borderline pupils. In the past, children just missing national standards had exam papers automatically reviewed - resulting in some many papers being upgraded. The loophole has now been closed.

Government statisticians said they expected results to drop by up to two percentage points when they are published on Tuesday, putting standards back at levels achieved in 2004. But there are fears that results could also be affected by the chaos surrounding the marking of this year's Sats papers. Results for 6,000 primary pupils had still not been delivered to schools earlier this week following errors by the company handling the process. Thousands more results for 14-year-olds were also outstanding.

Ofqual, the exams watchdog, said the delays would not affect marking, insisting "there was no evidence of widespread problems with the quality" of scripts. But some teachers have complained of irregularities, including papers being returned with no marks at all.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "The Government would have been better advised to hold them back so we could be assured that we were looking at authentic results. "So many doubts have been expressed that there has to be question marks against whatever results are published next week. If we are going to compare them properly against previous years, and use them as an accurate reflection of the performance of the system, we need to know that the results are as accurate as they could be."

The National Association of Head Teachers said the decision to publish national figures "beggars belief". It said it received 300 complaints from members about inaccuracies, which may only represent the "tip of the iceberg".

Some 600,000 children took Sats tests in their final year of primary school. In 2007, 80 per cent of pupils gained the level expected of their age in English, 77 per cent in maths and 88 per cent in science. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said it expected results to fall following the removal of so-called borderlining. In a statement, officials said it was likely to cause "a fall in the proportion of pupils achieving the expected level by up to two percentage points". It is believed English results will be worst hit.

Since the mid-90s, pupils with results two or three points below the pass mark in tests had papers automatically reviewed. But results for those who only just scraped over the borderline were never re-checked. It means thousands were marked up - but no-one was downgraded. Since 1999, average results have been boosted by 1.2 percentage points in English, 0.2 points in maths and 0.6 points in science, according to the Government's National Assessment Agency.

Nick Gibb, the Conservative shadow schools minister, said: "If these are more accurate figures, it just shows that the small rises in results we have seen in the last few years have been completely bogus. It will just reiterate the fact that standards of reading, writing and maths have plateaued over the last six or seven years. We should be getting all children to the required standard."


UK 'delusional' over climate change

The UK has massively overstated its reduction in carbon emissions, say two new reports which cast a harsh light on Britain's environmental policy. Government claims of reduced emissions are based on calculations which exclude significant contributing factors to global warming, the reports read. If aviation, shipping and the importing of goods are factored into the calculations UK greenhouse emissions are actually 49 per cent higher than reported. That means UK emissions have actually risen since the 1990s - contrary to government claims.

Both reports are by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in the University of York.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Steve Webb said: "The government has been unbelievably complacent about the UK's record on greenhouse gases. "The reality is that we have simply exported our emissions to countries that do the manufacturing that we used to do in the past."

Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth said: "Rather than hiding behind dodgy data and relying on green gimmicks the government need to make urgent changes to move the country to a low carbon economy."


Ignore this missive from people-hating doctors

The British Medical Journal's insistence that people should have fewer children speaks to our misanthropic, Malthusian, baby-fearing times

We live in a culture that finds it increasingly difficult to value life. So it isn't surprising that even the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published an editorial calling on doctors to advise their patients to have fewer children. According to the authors of the editorial - life-long Malthusian Professor John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes, an Exeter-based GP - not having children is `analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high-carbon cars'. Newborn babies are a danger to the environment, they argue, and although they rhetorically state that `we must not put pressure on people', pressure is exactly what they want doctors to exercise as part of this new Malthusian crusade.

`We are not criticising those people in Britain who had large families in the past, because a lot of people had no inkling about the sustainability implications', Guillebeaud informed the UK Guardian (1). In fact, as a hard-line Malthusian zealot, Guillebeaud has been criticising people who breed `too much' for a very long time. All that has changed in recent years is the packaging of anti-natalist arguments.

In the past, Malthusians warned that overpopulation would lead to famine. When that argument disintegrated, they said overpopulation would undermine economic development. Later they claimed that overpopulation might assist the spread of communism, and more recently they have argued that it aids terrorism (lots of poor young men with no jobs apparently leads to apocalyptic violence).

Now they have latched on to environmentalism and the widespread concern about humanity's impact on the planet. What we have today is a new form of joined-up scaremongering, where the traditional fear of human fertility is linking up with anxieties about what humans are doing to the Earth.

King Herod's fear of the newborn was confined to one baby. Today's misanthrophic fear merchants have a far bigger target in their sights. One Australian professor of obstetric medicine, Barry Walters, believes the survival of the planet requires stringent controls on the number of children parents can have. He argues: 'Anthropogenic greenhouse gases constitute the largest source of pollution, with by far the greatest contribution from humans in the developed world. Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing, but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society. What then should we do as environmentally responsible medical practitioners? We should point out the consequences to all who fail to see them, including, if necessary, the ministers for health. Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour, a "Baby Levy" in the form of a carbon tax should apply, in line with the "polluter pays" principle.' (2)

Throughout history, different cultures have celebrated birth as a unique moment, signifying the joy of life. The reinterpretation of a new birth as `greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour' speaks to today's degraded imagination, where carbon-reduction has become the supreme moral imperative. Once every newborn baby is dehumanised in this way - represented as little more than a professional polluter who is a `potent source of greenhouse gas emissions' - then it becomes difficult for people to read the BMJ editorial without nodding along in agreement.

If the birth of a baby is regarded as an unnecessary and unacceptable burden on the carrying capacity of the planet, then it's only a matter of time before a child's very existence will be regarded as a threat. One of the distinct features of contemporary environmentalism is its intense suspicion of the human species. Environmentalists' systematic spread of fear about the `human impact' promotes mistrust of people's motives, and in the end of people themselves. Going further down this route, the new demands for a carbon tax on fertility means that the defining identity of a newborn baby would be `Polluter'.

Subjecting the act of birth itself, that once-celebrated creation of a new life, to the `polluter pays' principle exposes the dark side of today's misanthrophic imagination.

More here

17 NHS patients with cancer wrongly get the all-clear

Seventeen cancer patients were wrongly given the allclear by a hospital after test results were misinterpreted, it was revealed yesterday. The men and women may have missed out on months of potentially life-saving treatment because of the blunders at Hereford County Hospital. In some cases the delay could have been more than two years. They have now received the devastating news that their initial diagnosis was wrong and have begun treatment. In addition 14 people were told they had cancer when they did not. Some may have needlessly undergone debilitating treatment.

The scandal came to light after concerns were raised about a consultant who examined tissue samples at the hospital. Six months ago a review of his work between May 2006 and August 2007 was started, and is now complete. The consultant, who has not been named, has been suspended and is facing disciplinary action. Legal experts said the hospital may be sued by patients.

Paul Keetch, Liberal Democrat MP for Hereford, has sent a letter to Health Secretary Alan Johnson asking him to ensure resources are made available for treating the wrongly diagnosed patients. Mr Keetch said: 'These people have not just been failed by Hereford, they have been failed by the NHS. 'Obviously there will be some patients who are undergoing speeded-up treatment for cancer, and we will be looking for other hospitals in the region to help. 'We must make sure none of the patients suffers as a result of this.'

Dr Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK said: 'This is extremely unfortunate and distressing news. It's vital that robust systems are put in place at Hereford County Hospital to stop this happening again.'

Caroline Klage, from national medical legal firm Bolt Burden Kemp, said the NHS trust faces being sued by many of the patients. She said: 'In the very worst scenario, where someone has lost the opportunity to be given effective treatment for cancer, the outlook is now bleak and they have a number of dependents, a compensation claim is likely to be significant.'

The review looked at 5,404 tissue samples from 4,654 patients which had been worked on by the consultant in the hospital's histopathology department. Not all the cases involved cancer patients. It found the diagnosis of 102 patients was wrong and their treatment needed altering. The situation of 40 was 'more serious' than at first thought, while the remaining 62 were less serious or 'not materially different'.

Around a quarter of the department's work concerns cancer patients. It also examines samples taken from patients with other conditions, such as the bowel disease Crohn's.

Hereford Hospitals NHS Trust chief executive Martin Woodford said he wanted to apologise 'personally and on behalf of the trust' to all the patients affected. He said: 'We have acted as quickly as possible to make sure that the review was carried out thoroughly and effectively. 'I can confirm that 17 patients were initially informed, incorrectly, that they did not have a malignancy such as cancer. 'However we must emphasise that a number of these patients would have undergone precautionary treatment anyway or been subject to clinical review. 'Furthermore we can give an absolute assurance that all patients are now following the correct course of treatment.'


Official rubbish snoopers in Britain

Bins belonging to celebrities, judges and London mayor Boris Johnson were searched by council-hired snoops. In all, 53 streets in Islington, North London, were secretly targeted by 'bin spies' in an operation which has angered residents. Last night, the Liberal Democrat-run council added fuel to the fire by stating: 'No permission was sought from residents as none is required.' It insisted it had not been snooping but simply 'investigating' the types of rubbish thrown away to see if more could be recycled.

Comedy actress Su Pollard lives in one of the streets involved. Miss Pollard, who starred in Hide-Hi! and You Rang, M'Lord?, said: 'I am quite incensed. It smacks of Big Brother. 'One feels like a suspect in some way. 'There is nothing in my bins that would incriminate me in any way - it's mostly yoghurt pots - but I am terribly uneasy about it. 'It will make you think twice before leaving rubbish out.'

Birds of a Feather star Linda Robson, who lived in the area at the time of the searches, said: 'That is terrible. How dare they? 'I recycle but there may have been private things I was throwing away. It is really intrusive. Is nothing sacred?' Mr Johnson declined to comment.

Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, last night said serious security issues could be involved. 'High Court judges and High Court appeal judges live in those streets,' she said. 'I am sure they are careful but a sheet of paper can easily go amiss, and council officers could have seen them. 'My concerns are who authorised this and what they do with the stuff. They should have told people what they were going to do.'

The spying was uncovered after a Freedom of Information request to Islington asking whether it had undertaken any kind of survey of bins during the last five years. The answer was that it had - between August 1 and 12 2005 and between November 8 and 19 2004. In total, 1,000 households had their rubbish inspected secretly. The council said: 'The operatives involved were waste professionals acting under a strict code of conduct which included the possibility of finding items of a personal nature such as confidential paperwork.'

Liberal Democrat councillor Greg Foxsmith said: 'This is not about snooping into households' bins or invading privacy. It was an investigation into rubbish to see what is being sent to landfill and how much more could be recycled. 'Rubbish is not looked at individually or records taken - confidentiality is taken very seriously.'


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