The whiff of government secrecy, divisions between departments and hints of a cover-up have been major factors in the creation of food panics in recent years, according to researchers at Glasgow University.
In their study of food scares during the 1980s and early 1990s, such as BSE and salmonella in eggs and chicken, the researchers say that information from the Government was restricted to high-profile PR events.
Government press officers acted as barriers between the media and government vets and scientists. This made it easier for reporters to write about government conspiracies and created a news vacuum, which journalists tried to fill by approaching other sources or experts.
The microbiologist Richard Lacey, visiting professor at Leeds University and a vocal opponent of the Government's policy on both salmonella and BSE, was featured a total of 18 times in television news bulletins on salmonella - more than any other scientist and equal to the number of interviews with the Department of Health's chief medical officer. With BSE, Professor Lacey was the most quoted scientist in one sample of newspapers.
The researchers, John Eldridge, Jacquie Reilly and David Miller of Glasgow's department of sociology, say that protection of departmental turfs is also to blame for the Government's abysmal handling of recent food scares.
Jacquie Reilly says: "Our evidence shows that from the very beginning of the BSE scare, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food took over all aspects of its handling, marginalising the Department of Health both in terms of policy making and in speaking to the media. Anyone who criticised the 'there is no risk' message was effectively silenced or accused of 'scaremongering'."
She says that given the very uncertain nature of the science around BSE, MAFF's handling of the issue has been disastrous: "They have put politics and commerce before the public and are now paying for it." The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.