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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 73 - Fishing for reassurance about food production

AS one of the diminishing band of Britons who, in 1940, stood alone, bit the bullet and tackled Spam and dried egg to sustain our strength in licking Hitler, and who is generally as impassive as an Easter Island statue, I now display the occasional flinch.

The reason is that health scares are giving me distinct feelings of vague malaise. If you believe the latest one, millions of people could be doomed because of possible whims of some viruses.

I donít want to be too explicit in a family column, but if a bird flu virus shacks up with an ordinary flu specimen, the resultant mutation could result in a new virus that could act on humans like microscopic Godzillas and the new bugs would make, according to a cheery newspaper headline, Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) look like the common cold, although last year it infected about 8,000 people and killed about 800, almost half in China.

That news has put my vitamin C, cod liver oil tablets and medicated chest rub precautions into perspective and has given me a psychosomatic tickly throat, but I am not panicking - yet. After all, I remained rock-steady in the face of Asian flu, mad cow disease, salmonella and listeria scares, and scores of other warnings about certain foodstuffs and drinks that, once considered harmless, were later found capable of felling people like a mace, bringing them out in spots or gumming up their arteries.

When I venture out of doors nowadays, with the caution and suspicion of a veteran turtle, ready to retreat at the first sign of shock, I wonder whether anything is safe - the air I breathe, the water I drink and the exhaust-filled and mobile-phone masted, traffic-congested streets. We are warned that the ozone-layer is thinning and global warning is likely to leave those parts of the planet not under water sizzling in record temperatures, and I am brooding on whether crisps, I recklessly consumed at a reception, contained anti-oxidants, free radicals or other substances that, when it comes to the crunch, might bring on dandruff or turn me temporarily bright blue all over.

I am still uncertain whether coffee, tea, milk and my muesli are safe. My doubts apply not only to meat and fish but also to fruit and sweets, including acid drops and Granny Veitchís soor plooms. A friend tried the so-called Tarzan Diet, purchased from a health food branch. After eating bananas, coconuts and palm oil he didnít feel better, but his tree-climbing improved.

Once, when the British population had few food fads and thought nothing of having a big breakfast, three-course lunch, cooked tea, a bite of supper and maybe a bedside plate of biscuits to ward off night starvation, you knew people had good stuff in them. Now, we cannot be sure.

The French gourmet, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), said: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." I can tell you what I am - a masticating maelstrom of hydrolysed vegetable protein, tetrasodium disphosphate, tricalcium phosphate, permitted colour, moisteners, thickeners, thinners, sodium ascorbate, bleaches, anti-caking agents, non-nutritive sweeteners and who knows what else.

Thatís the sort of stuff millions of us are shovelling into ourselves with consequences that, one dire day, may figure in yet more health warnings which, by their frank nature, may have us reaching for what a Sunday newspaper columnist once called "the sick bag".

I remember feeling distinctly fragile after reading that Swedish scientists had bound "significant levels of acrylamide - a probably cancer-causing chemical - in many cooked and processed foods such as potatoes, crisp-breads, oven-baked and deep-fried potatoes and roasted, grilled and barbecued food.

That scare spluttered and died, but I felt queasy again when a sadistic expert revealed that some 2,000 permitted additives can be used to sweeten burger buns or colour ketchup.

Fed to the teeth with health warnings - including one about a new virus called "My doom" that can menace the well-being of computers - and revelations about what is in the witchesí cauldron of modern food production, I ordered, in a restaurant yesterday, a succulent slice of Scottish salmon and felt the better for it.

I refused the tutti-frutti ice cream with the pineapple slice on top. At my age, one should have a concern for oneís health.

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