The great unwashed
The Food Standard Agency's suggestion that we really don't need to wash or peel all of our fruit and vegetables has upset those hygiene-conscious people at Friends of the Earth. (See Food advice move sparks row). Strange really given that FoE and their chums at the Soil Association are forever urging us to buy products grown in the faecal deposits of horses, cows and even battery chickens. But why is the FSA proposing this apparent U-turn on the advice it gives about pesticide traces and their elimination that washing is supposed to achieve?
Ostensibly the FSA says that it wants to encourage rather than deter people from eating a healthy diet. And it assumes that if people think that their Golden Delicious needs a bath before they munch on it, they will not bother. So, the risk of the ill-effects of pesticides becomes 'discounted' in favour of the alleged benefits of fruit, despite dentists' taking a rather dim view of apples and the effects they have on our teeth (See A rock and a hard place).
In a wonderfully arcane statement the chairman of the independent advisory committee on pesticides said: "The advice [to wash fruit] that was given was really a precaution because of uncertainty." In other words, there never was any evidence to suggest that pesticide residues were harmful, but the committee thought they would issue a health warning anyway, as if we didn't have enough spurious health warnings in our lives as it was.
The good news, of course, is that 'new research' has done away with this uncertainty. There is no longer a problem and we can relax. No need to wash fruit even though everybody from the greengrocer's lad to the finicky customers in front of us in Tesco's might have mauled it over with their less than pristine fingers?
The reason for the FSA's change of heart might lie not so much in the 'new research' but in the dilemma posed by the National School Fruit Scheme, which involves giving (some would say force-feeding) all children between the ages of 4 and 6 an apple, banana or satsuma a day – a policy described by the leading nutritionist Tom Sanders as merely squandering £52 million which could be much better spent on discovering just what, precisely, a balanced diet for children amounts to.
Consider the problem for hard-pressed teachers. Boxes of perishable fruit to be pressed into the hands of each of the children in their care is one thing. But having to wash each and every piece before it can safely be allowed to be eaten (or thrown away, or used as a missile) is another. So, how very helpful of the Food Standards Agency to relieve teachers of this additional and burdensome task.
What this whole issue illustrates, perhaps, is that the advice we are given about food does not always stem directly from real evidence but more from considerations of 'health correctness' and expediency. Fruit for children is a 'good thing', despite the fact that the contribution made by the school apple to their diet is often both trivial and unnecessary. If little Emily and Josh feel a little sick afterwards from the effects of the microbes or pesticide residues coating their break-time treat, that's the price we should happily pay for dietary rectitude. And look on the bright side – the FSA tells us that hot cross buns are a healthy choice for an Easter treat.
26 March 2002