SIRC – Media Watch 24-08-99
With the death of baby Leroy Elders the media set about exposing the hidden but 'deadly' salt content of processed foods. While the story understandably received much coverage the perceived site of blame was by no means unanimous. The Independent hailed salt as the new drug. Are we inclined therefore to believe that the food industry is the pusher? Tragic though the death of the infant was, and without entering into any arguments as to whether a three month old baby should be fed on mashed potatoes and gravy, the Independent's article seems slightly melodramatic. The British Nutrition Foundation stated that child fatality through salt overdose was extremely rare. Dr David Wilson from Edinburgh's Sick Children's Hospital concurred with this viewpoint in the Scotsman and suggested that the cases had declined dramatically in recent years. "They were quite common twenty years ago because babies were still being given cows' milk to drink which has three times the amount of salt in breast milk and formula."
The Irish Times gave a voice to Mary Daly, of the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, who commented: "This is a tragic case and what makes it more tragic is that it need not have happened. If there were enough health visitors.this couple could have been advised about how to feed their child." To my mind, Angela Philips offered the most responsible and thoughtful account in the Guardian. "This family seems to have fallen down a hole created not by under-regulation or lack of advice, but by the sheer quantity of advice and the level of detail which all new mothers are expected to assimilate. The feeding of babies has become a minefield: last week we heard that breast milk was contaminated, while last year it was bottled formula. Parents are terrified of doing something wrong and the government has responded with the ever tighter regulation of baby products."
This latest event will undoubtedly serve to increase the current boom enjoyed by the manufacturers of organic baby food. One such producer, Hipp has experienced a rise in monthly sales from 800,000 to 2.4 million tins since February, due largely to concerns surrounding GM food. As Susan Devere, the food expert for the magazine Mother and Baby points out: "Mothers are deeply concerned about GM foods. The thing is we just don't know what the consequences are." The supposition that going organic somehow eliminates risk however should not be taken as read. Matt Ridley's excellent article in the Telegraph discusses the effects of media polarisation on our conceptions of nutrition and health. I am sure Hipp-purchasing mothers would be horrified to learn for example that the foods cultivated under organic regulations are eight times more likely to contain E-coli. My apologies for confusing the issue further.