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Experts seek to soothe mad cow fears

Experts seek to soothe mad cow fears

DAVOS, Switzerland (CNN) -- The chances of dying of "mad cow disease" are about the same as dying from getting out of bed, delegates at the World Economic Forum have been told.

Experts on Saturday sought to quell food safety fears in the wake of a number of scares including the rising incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, thought to cause the human version of the brain-wasting disease, vCJD.

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Amid calls for more openness, delegates were assured by EU Health Commissioner David Byrne that the planned European Food Authority would be free of political interference.

But Byrne said it would be up to members of the new authority to decide whether meetings would be open to the media like those of the UK's Food Standards Agency.

The head of the new agency, Sir John Krebs, said polls showed only seven per cent of people in the UK trusted the government on food safety.

Therefore to "travel up the long hill to public trust and confidence" his agency was free of all political influence, industrial interests and published all its advice to ministers.

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He urged governments and food regulators to stick to scientific advice, reassess their views when evidence changed and admit when they did not know the answers.

Sausages v. cigarettes

Krebs sought to put recent food scares into perspective.

About a third of coronary heart disease fatalities and a third of cancer deaths each year are related to food -- totalling 73,000 and 34,000 respectively.

Deaths from salmonella, e-coli and similar infections amounted to between 50 and 300 a year with about 20 people a year killed by fatal food allergies. Europe
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Against that, fatalities from vCJD were currently running at 15 annually, about the same number as deaths from people getting out of bed.

Els Borst-Eilers, the Dutch Health Minister, said that she told people in the Netherlands that the risk in eating sausages in the wake of recent BSE scares on the Continent was about the same as smoking a single cigarette a year.

Krebs warned delegates that discussions over food safety were largely a western luxury with commercial interests warning of the need for science to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to feed the millions in the developing world.

Delegates were told that expanding present-style agricultural production could only be done at the cost of polluting many of our rivers and forests.

Delegates with doubts about GMOs were told of the American minister faced with similar worries.

He declared: "When we develop a tomato with a Viagra gene everyone will want to eat it."

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