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Feeding off the culture of fear

The 'Frankenstein food' panic is a sign of our alarmist times, says Frank Furedi

When my book Culture of Fear was first published in September 1997, the media had not yet scared itself to death by inventing the term 'Frankenstein food'. Nevertheless, back in 1997 it was already evident that British society's obsession with safety was likely to lead to an accelerating stream of panics about all kinds of 'risks'.

Culture of Fear argued that in contemporary Britain, scares about health, safety or crime often had little or nothing to do with the facts about the specific issue of concern. Instead, the existential anxieties of our age had acquired a free-floating character which could attach itself to a panic about almost anything, from tampons to peanuts or from road rage to genetic engineering. The book anticipated an era in which alarmist reactions to anything new would become the norm. It suggested that, in such a climate of fear, an obsession with safety and the backward-looking politics of caution were likely to prevail.

Since 1997 the culture of fear has become a routine part of the British way of life, as panics about food, health, the environment and crime follow one after another in the news. Parents in particular have faced a barrage of scare stories about the new risks their children allegedly face. They have been constantly warned about the dangers of cot death, told not to allow their children to be exposed to the sun, and advised about the lethal danger posed by plastic toys and baby walkers. Predictably in this climate, parental anxieties erupted in March 1998, when a relatively insubstantial report alleged a connection between the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine and Crohn's disease and autistic spectrum disorders among children. Despite the lack of hard evidence to support the scare, large numbers of parents reacted by refusing to inoculate their children with the MMR vaccine.

Another growth area over the past two years has been food panics. The huge scare about BSE has led to the stigmatisation of meat in general and red meat in particular as a major health risk.

Typically, a government report in September 1997 warned that even a small amount of red meat in the diet could substantially increase an individual's risk of cancer. Although within a month a different study indicated that this alert was wrong, the sense of unease about meat-eating remained widespread. For a while even lamb was suspected of posing a 'BSE-like' danger to human health. In January 1998, the British Medical Association declared that any raw meat in your fridge should be treated as if it is infected and could give you food poisoning. Against this background, it is little wonder that the New Labour government first implemented and has since insisted on standing by its totally irrational ban on beef on the bone.

Non-meat eaters have not been allowed to enjoy their food in peace, either. In February 1998 the Orwellian-sounding Local Authorities' Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards called on the government to ban the use of raw eggs in restaurant dishes. A few days later it was announced that ministers planned to ban unpasteurised milk in England, since a fifth of the sample tested by the government's laboratory was deemed to be of an unacceptable quality.

With one food panic leading to another, it was only a matter of time before British food production itself became the target. In March 1998 a report by the prestigious National Consumer Council declared that intensive farming methods in Britain could lead to the spread of 'life-threatening illnesses' and noted that the 'risk to consumers is incalculable'. A week later American agribusiness came under fire, as frozen food chain Iceland indicated that its 770 stores in Britain would not sell food which may have been produced using genetically modified soya from America. Throughout the rest of 1998 and into this year, the scare about GM food gathered strength, drawing on the already-ingrained concerns about food safety.

It is not just food and health which have invited a panic response over the past two years. Remember how, in April 1998, anxious groups of parents were organising vigilante groups against predatory child-killers? The paedophile panic showed how fear can turn into mob rule. Unfortunately, fear itself is a destructive factor, and one that is destroying communities and families. Already one teenage girl has been burnt to death in an arson attack on a supposed paedophile. Scores of people have been attacked - some of them convicted and released child sex offenders, and others wholly innocent victims of mistaken identities. Anxieties about convicted sex offenders often coexist with the perception that potentially all adults pose a risk to children.

Once the mindset of fear prevails, it creates a world where problems and difficulties are inflated and where potential solutions are overlooked. Fear and panic are driven by a self-fulfilling dynamic, so that for example people who worry about their food are actually likely to conclude that they are ill. That is why we are confronted with the paradox that the healthier we are, the more likely we are to define ourselves as ill. Even though people in a country like Britain live longer and healthier lives than ever before, more and more of them now define themselves as ill. According to the General Household Survey, as many as four in 10 people in some parts of Britain now consider that they have a longstanding illness - reflecting a 66 percent rise in self-reported long-term illness since 1972.

Even the rise in the number of people who consider that they have a long-term illness pales into significance compared to the massive increase in the proportion of young people who define themselves as disabled. A recent survey showed that between 1985 and 1996, the number of British people who consider themselves disabled increased by 40 percent. The greatest increase was among the young - self-definition of disability increased by 155 percent for those aged 16 to 19.

The authors of the survey conclude that the differences between the 1985 and 1996 figures 'appear too large to be explained by a real increase in the prevalence of disability', but they are at a loss to explain why more people are embracing this label. Although there is no simple explanation of why people are increasingly disposed to define themselves as ill or disabled, it is evident that this sense of a diseased self expresses profound anxieties about a world that seems so threatening. In such circumstances, illness becomes the norm - to be alive is to be ill. The contemporary culture of fear encourages this depressing style of self-definition.

The scare about genetically modified food is in many ways the latest pay-off from this process. Every new panic reinforces the vulnerability of the diseased self, until virtually every eating experience can be regarded as an engagement with a potential danger. Mistrust towards a particular food product is increasingly extended towards those people who produce the food. That is why, during the past year, a coalition of doom merchants, environmentalists, opportunist newspapers and politicians has succeeded in recasting British farming as a mortal threat to the public. Highly sensationalist accounts have painted a picture of communities of rural monsters producing toxic food for supermarket shelves. Illustrative of this scaremongering journalism was a special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine titled 'Who is killing the countryside?', which pointed to the 'killing fields' of Cambridgeshire, where intensive farming methods 'are slowly stripping the landscapes of natural features and wildlife habitat' (5 April 1998).

Indeed the entire countryside now bears the stigma of evil. According to conventional wisdom, farmers have become parasites on the poor tax-paying public, who repay us by using irresponsible methods which threaten to damage the food chain, with unknown consequences. The farmyard is increasingly depicted as a kind of rural concentration camp, where animals kept against their will are systematically subjected to the most barbaric practices. Farmers are not only indifferent to the fate of their animals, it seems they are also unconcerned about the devastating impact that their polluted food could have on the consumer.

It appears that BSE is only the tip of the iceberg, as a variety of new infectious diseases are alleged to be creeping out of the countryside to make our lives a misery. The clear message is that British food cannot be trusted - and nor can the farming communities that produce it. The irrational reaction to intensive farming, a method of cultivation that has succeeded in providing relatively cheap and nourishing food for British people, indicates that any aspect of food production can now quickly be transformed into a threat to people's lives.

In a sense 'Frankenstein food' was born before most of us had ever heard of GM food. The culture of fear thrives on continually producing and reproducing new Frankensteins. GM food, which appears even more 'unnatural' than intensive farming, provides a much clearer focus for our anxieties. Conveniently, old-fashioned nationalists can also jump on the bandwagon and point out that the enemy is not so much the British farmer but these invisible conglomerates owned by American and other foreign interests.

In a society devoted to promoting the diseased self, if GM food did not exist it would have to be invented.

Friends of LM can buy Frank Furedi's Culture of Fear: risk-taking and the morality of low expectation at the reduced price of £10 plus £1 p&p. Phone (0171) 269 9224 for details

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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