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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 22/06/2003)

Krebs kills off shellfish industry
Nowhere to go but here
Hall loses out to asylum seekers
The fags of EU life

Krebs kills off shellfish industry

Last week an industry worth £20 million a year, supporting several thousand people, was closed down by Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency on the basis of an obsolete scientific test so comprehensively discredited that even its Japanese inventor has admitted it should be abandoned.

The complete ban on cockle-fishing brings to a head a crisis that has been gathering over the industry for two years, since the FSA transferred its testing for toxins in shellfish to a Government-owned laboratory in Weymouth, which bases its tests on injecting mice with shellfish extract. This form of testing, which throws up a wholly abnormal number of "positive" results and causes the mice to go into convulsions and die a painful death, is no longer used by any other country. Yet solely on this basis, thousands have been put out of work and scores of businesses are threatened with bankruptcy.

Despite its archaic image, the cockle industry, centred on the Thames estuary, South Wales and the Wash, is one of the success stories of modern Britain, exporting 95 per cent of its product. Millions of pounds have been spent on new boats and processing facilities in recent years. No one has greater interest in maintaining the industry's safety record than men such as Andrew Ratley, the operating manager for Kershaw's, which employs 200 people on the Thames estuary; Rory Parsons, who runs a processing plant near Swansea, where 200 people are directly employed hand-gathering or processing cockles from the Burry Inlet; or John Lake, whose eight boats at King's Lynn, Norfolk, are part of an industry that supports another 1,600 around the Wash.

In 2000, responsibility for monitoring the safety of shellfish was taken over by the FSA, which, in 2001, after a tendering exercise, transferred the testing contract from the National Reference Laboratory in Aberdeen to the Centre for Environmental, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Weymouth. Immediately the Cefas laboratory began coming up with an abnormally high number of "positive" results, causing the FSA to close one cockle-bed after another.

Scientists such as Dr Peter Hunt, of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, were disturbed to find that Cefas was using a notoriously unreliable Japanese testing procedure that involved adding solvents to huge amounts of shellfish extract, equivalent in concentration to more than half a tonne of cockle flesh, and injecting it directly into the peritoneum of mice, many of which promptly died. The test is so crude that it provides no means of identifying any supposed toxin or even whether the solvent itself could be the cause of death.

Even more alarmingly, Cefas used no controls to monitor the efficacy of its tests, which is not only unscientific but defies EU protocols for testing procedures. Yet whenever samples were sent by the industry for independent analysis by other laboratories, using modern methods such as oral testing on rats coupled with the EU-approved system of liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) testing, these consistently came up with negative results where Cefas was showing positives.

Last January, when the industry had already lost tens of millions of pounds through closures, representatives of the industry put their concerns directly to Sir John Krebs. Dr Hunt says: "We had the clear impression that he understood the points we were making and that a full investigation would be carried out as a matter of urgency." Yet since then, he claims, "FSA officials have concentrated their efforts on trying to identify a new protocol to identify the 'toxin' they presume exists, in order to justify two years of delay and malpractice."

In other words, despite the evidence of almost every other scientific expert in the world (even Prof Yasumoto, who developed the process, says it is now "time to move on" from his technique), the FSA appears simply to be battening down the hatches. This month the National Reference Laboratory, whose findings have repeatedly contradicted those of Cefas, was ordered by the FSA not to carry out any more independent testing.

Last Thursday the FSA issued a blanket closure order on every cockle-bed in the country, leaving several thousand people without a livelihood. They deserve more than a self-serving bureaucratic explanation.

Nowhere to go but here

Parliament is currently approving the 2,500-page accession treaty whereby 10 countries are to be admitted to the EU next May. There has been some surprise that this Bill will allow Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and other eastern European nationals the right to come to Britain next year, and to enjoy social security benefits, education and health care. Apart from Ireland, other EU countries such as Germany and France are so terrified of being "swamped' by immigrants from the east that they are refusing to allow them "freedom of movement" for another seven years.

The other side to this equation, however, is that the entrant countries will not receive full subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy until 2013. In Poland, a quarter of the population, nearly 10 million people, are dependent on a backward and, by Western standards, inefficient agriculture. Yet as from next May the Poles will have to open their borders to fully-subsidised food surpluses from the West, so much cheaper that Polish farmers will find it impossible to compete.

The idea is that as Polish agriculture is forced, in the harshest possible way, to "modernise", millions will be driven off the land. If they go to the cities, they will find that many of Poland's subsidised industries have been closed, under EU rules banning "state aid". With 50,000 steel workers already unemployed, there will thus be little work for the dispossessed rural population, whose best hope of survival will be to head for Britain and Ireland, where they will be entitled to state support as soon as they can find somewhere to live. A very great tragedy is in the making.

Hall loses out to asylum seekers

Grants for village halls were high on the agenda for Millennium lottery cash three years ago. The villagers of Stoke Gregory in Somerset thus had high hopes when they asked for help to build theirs; and the response from the Community Fund seemed encouraging when it said that their scheme "was very well planned and obviously enjoys the support of the people living in the community". The money they had raised themselves was "impressive".

Unfortunately, however, other applications "were a closer fit to the regional priorities for funding". "Priorities in the South West Region" had to be focused "principally on four categories". These were listed as "older and disabled people and their carers", "refugees and asylum seekers", "black and ethnic minority communities" and "people in areas disadvantaged by social or economic change".

I am not sure it would be wise to comment on this, although I suspect the views of Geoff Bean, the robust Yorkshire farmer featured in this column last week, might not be printable.

The fags of EU life

The 27 pupils of class 7AS from Ogmore comprehensive school in South Wales have won "a European holiday" in a competition sponsored by the European Commission. They beat 500,000 students in 19,000 other classes from 14 countries. To win the prize the children, who are all aged 11 and 12, had to sign a pledge five months running that they would not smoke. Their prize is to spend four days in Brussels with their teachers. Second prize, no doubt, is a full week in Brussels, with a chance to meet Neil Kinnock thrown in. And a "party bag" of cheap cigarettes to take home.