Seven years after Britain’s government in 1996 admitted to the potentially catastrophic human health risks of mad cow disease, fears of the deadly pathogen had faded. Scientists had neither a vaccine nor a cure for nCJD, but in early 2003 they downgraded the projected infection rates; tens of thousands of cases of nCJD now appeared unlikely. The domestic beef market had recovered, and even long-critical media commentators said it was time for beef “to have a revival” (Lawrence 2003a). Whether for reasons of safety, taste or patriotism, market surveys indicated that consumers now preferred British beef to imported meats (Mintel 2003). They also worried rather less about overall food safety. According to the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) annual Consumer Attitudes Survey, the percentage of consumers who described themselves as “very” or “quite” concerned about food safety had dropped to 68 percent in 2002 down from 71 percent the year before.1 This is still a lot of concern, but the government nonetheless concluded that it had “made some headway” in its efforts to win back public trust. At the international level, however, longstanding food controversies still simmered and sometimes flared. Zambia, for example, set off a round of transatlantic name-calling in late 2002 when, despite impending famine, it refused to distribute genetically modified (GM) food aid from the United States. The U.S. trade secretary accused the “Luddite” Europeans of forcing Africans to go hungry because the Zambians, like other southern African agro-exporters, feared losing access to the European market if American GM corn contaminated their own crops. European NGOs, meanwhile, condemned the United States for using food aid to establish an African beachhead for the biotech industry (Vidal 2002; Teather 2003). Media analysis of this controversy gave little attention to Zambian citizens’ views of GM food, emphasizing instead the striking rift between American and European perspectives on GM foods and food quality more generally. As in past coverage of the transatlantic GM battle, the explanation was partly cultural (Europeans simply care more about taste than shelf life), partly social psychological. The trauma of recent food scares, in other words, had left Europeans suspicious of “unnatural” foods even if “science” insisted they were safe.
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