March hares in Westminster;Opinion

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Schools and education authorities are as confused as the Government about the safety of beef. Some have decided to ban it from school meals. Others are leaving pupils to decide from a choice of dishes. There is a case for both approaches.

The Government has said that there may be a link between BSE, or mad cow disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, but it has also claimed that the likelihood of a connection is slight and the number of CJD cases remains very few. Children, we were told this week, are no more at risk than the rest of the population. Therefore on scientific grounds neither schools nor education authorities need feel impelled to act.

But public confidence has been affected regardless of the careful and cautious scientific messages. The Consumers' Association has suggested that anyone who is worried should avoid beef. Burger chains, led by McDonald's, have made commercial decisions based on perception of public anxiety. Should schools not be as decisive?

Those education authorities and independent schools which have removed beef have taken the easier approach. Not only can they say, better safe than sorry, but they also avoid parents insisting that their children eschew beefburgers or other allegedly questionable dishes. Policing refectories is a burden headteachers can well do without. One told last weekend's conference of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland of a father's complaint that his son had eaten five burgers in as many days.

The Government's record of giving contradictory messages for nearly a decade has exacerbated the difficulties for producers and consumers. European countries which are not themselves free of food hygiene problems have ignored scientific caution in a precipitate desire to act. The handling of the issue does no one credit. Pupils learning how to evaluate scientific evidence, together with those in modern studies classes, could use it as an example of how not to make decisions.

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