Don's Diary

January 2, 1998


Fax back to a student in United States to say he is welcome to join the MSc food safety course next year. I hope he gets his fellowship to pay the fees. Sort out the supervisory needs of our postgraduate in Bahrain. I am satisfied he will be able to undertake a good project there. Spend an hour counselling a refugee student from the former Yugoslavia, helping her learn our ways. Every year we have two or three students who are seeking asylum. Students who have come from terrible events to try make a new life here. I am glad to do all I can to help.


Another teaching session with the MSc students - a multicultural and lively older bunch. On the right the group of environmental health officers - they are in the public firing line, the ones who try to police the quality and safety of our food. Articulate and committed, they bring me bits of information and help keep me up to date. In the front row, a little group from France, Greece and Albania building on their first degrees. In the middle the student from Botswana. At the back the one from the Ivory Coast. These last two are packing as much as possible into one year. They want to go back to their own countries as food specialists.

The session on food standards went well but in struggling to explain a finer point about counting bacteria my analogy got lost: "It's like," I said, waving my arms around to embrace them all, "counting all the people in this room, non-discriminating". They warmed to the analogy and I expanded: "But if we wanted to count some subsets, say men, and women, we'd have to do some further tests, wouldn't we?" "No we wouldn't," they roared, "we know that already!" Just as well I did not use that one when the Higher Education Funding Council chap was in my class last week.


No teaching today. Just a couple of bids for some European Union money progressed, a group of postgraduate students assessed, academic board attended. It sounds as if students paying up to Pounds 1,000 towards their own fees is going to be an administrative nightmare. Thank goodness chasing money is not my job.


I bustle into the class of first-year science undergraduates, all a bit blase now one term has passed. No reaction from them, not even the mild stir that usually accompanies my arrival at the start of a class. I cry: "My goodness! What a lot of suet puddings you are! Aren't you all keyed up ready to go?" A puzzled shuffling. "Don't you know what a suet pudding is?" Fixing the nearest one with my eye I demand: "Who doesn't?" Half the class put up their hands reluctantly. Amazed, I say: "I'd better tell you."

Now this is all off the point, and I can feel the relief that gently ripples through the room at some stay of execution before they have to do their bit in front of the class. "Suet," I say, "is beef fat." They groan, latest BSE crisis in mind. By way of illustration I put my hands on my hips, fingers meeting at my spine, and say "you know, where the kidneys lie at the back of the body cavity. Well, after you've eviscerated the beef carcass." "Not me," calls one, "I'm vegetarian." I plough on: "Well anyway, often the kidneys are encased in a layer of fat, and if you want to remove the kidneys I" they groan, I continue: "you have to remove the wodges of membranous fat first. That's the suet."

By now these young students are interested. They label me an oldie who knows old-fashioned things. As I stand before them I remember the dry ripping noise it would make as my mother pulled the white lump apart and cut away the thicker pieces of membrane. Internet- and mobile phone-literate, but they do not even know the packaged granules of free-flowing suet recently part of the Christmas pudding, now on the list of artery hardeners and hence taboo. I say to the these kids for whom foods are so different to when I was 20 in the 1960s: "The fat is finely chopped up and used in delicious puddings - treacle, jam, spotted dick; good, heavy, solid and stodgy, served with custard."

Some smart student quips: "Spotted dick - what's that?" Fearing I might just be getting into difficult waters I change tack: "That's just what I meant! You looked solid and immovable." "It's just that we're nervous,'' says one, lounging a bit over the desk. Another shouts: "Oh, don't mention nerves. Talking about beef fat's bad enough. Nerves are worse. We'd all get CJD." The whole lot laugh. They are lively now, a bit hyped up, ready to do their presentations, not as it happened on BSE, but on salmonella, E.coli and lots of other nasties borne through our food.


I get out Chapter Four of the book I am writing. There is a lot I want to say about our food and its safety. A knock on the door and a colleague enters asking me where the exam paper I should have written is. "I've done it," I say in half-truth. I put the manuscript to the back of the desk. Oh well, what better for the students than to get it from the horse's mouth?


Course director of the MSc in food safety and control, South Bank University.

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