Crisis Factory


Rule by Fear: The Endless Cycle of Contrived Crises

As public attention shifts from the covid-19 virus to military conflict in Ukraine, the notion of permanent crisis is being discussed in the mainstream media. Sunday Times columnist Josh Glancy (27 February 2022) opined that this morbid age began in 2016, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Of course, these two events were only terrible to the intelligentsia, for whom such democratic reversals were labelled ‘populism’. Turmoil often arises as an understandable reaction of ordinary people to the ‘progressive’ agenda of the establishment. But there is also a tendency of governments to create emergencies, justifying command and control.

In the 1980s, new dangers arose as the threat of nuclear Armageddon subsided. Climate change succeeded the Cold War as a prophecy of doom, but this was too abstract to scare the populace. A more direct and immediate threat was needed. As investigated in Scared to Death (2007), Christopher Booker and Richard North showed how the British government terrified citizens about the food on their plate.

Food poisoning was a three-pronged fork that cut deeply into farms and the family diet: salmonella in eggs, listeria in milk and cheese, and ‘mad cow disease’ in beef. Ultimately these transpired as dramatically exaggerated hazards based on dubious scientific evidence. Heeding ‘expert’ warnings of mass mortality, ministers made unnecessary and extremely destructive decisions (I shall avoid repetitive comparisons to covid-19, as parallels should be obvious). But was it all panic, or did the authorities have ulterior motives?

Three characters played a prominent part in this tragic pantomime. Bernard Rowe, head of the Public Health Laboratory Service; Richard Lacey, professor of microbiology at Leeds University; and Tim Lang, director of the London Food Commission, a pressure group funded by London mayor Ken Livingstone.

In 1984, with concerns about salmonella surfacing, a serious outbreak of food poisoning occurred at Stanley Royd psychiatric hospital (the former West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum). After hundreds of cases in staff and patients, and 19 deaths, Rowe went to investigate, but the hospital authority denied access. Crown immunity conferred on the NHS was rescinded by the government after an outcry. The eventual report in 1986 described sloppy catering practices, and a similar finding was made when the Leeds General Infirmary staff kitchen was closed. However, salmonella was portrayed as an inherent threat in raw eggs, thus further incidents were inevitable. Pasteurised egg replaced fresh produce, despite no proof that eggs had caused the sickness. 

In 1986 the ‘cook-chill’ system was introduced in NHS hospitals. Designed specifically to prevent salmonella, this entailed meals being heated in trolleys on ward corridors, after preparation in a central kitchen (I remember the arrival of the  large blue trolleys during my clinical training; the smell lingered and the food seemed blander than ever). The unions went berserk because ‘cook-chill’ led to closure of smaller hospital kitchens and job losses.

Lacey, who declared himself ‘deeply suspicious of the potentially fatal cooking technique’, blamed ‘cook-chill’ for rising cases of listeriosis, which he claimed was killing 300 people per year.  Evidently cheese and other dairy products harboured the germs. Yet like other bacteria, the presence of listeria in food is not necessarily harmful. The obsession with salmonella and listeria caused other sources of infection to be overlooked, most notably the emergence of the hospital-acquired disease MRSA.  

In 1988 the Observer reported that egg producers had tested eight thousand eggs from two hundred farms without finding a single case of salmonella. However, paucity of proof was ignored by the poisoning propagandists. Lacey, elevated to the status of national expert despite having no background in food poisoning, claimed that chickens carried salmonella whether symptomatic or not. Meanwhile Lang accused the government of covering up a scandal, putting the profits of farmers before public safety.

On 3rd December 1988 health minister Edwina Currie made her impromptu televised statement, warning that ‘most of the egg production in this country is now, sadly, infected with salmonella’. The slaughter in henhouses began, and egg sales plummeted. Amidst the furore, Currie resigned. 

Meanwhile a new disease struck. After a few reports of animals behaving as though drunk, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found, a disease causing the brain to turn to mush. Incidence was attributed to cattle being fed on bonemeal (a vital source of protein), which was subsequently banned. ‘Mad cow disease’ was then linked to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans, a rapidly debilitating form of dementia, although zoonotic transmission was never satisfactorily proven. Expecting a terrible toll of neurological morbidity, the idea of euthanasia was mooted.  Abattoirs were closed, and entire herds were incinerated.

According to Lang, who toured the television studios, ‘Britain has the sick food of Europe’. He supported the German ban on British beef (I guess that he would have been an avid Remainer). Some schools took beef off the menu. In an effort to restore public confidence, on 16th May 1990 agriculture minister John Gummer took advantage of television cameras to offer his 4-year-old daughter Cordelia a hamburger. When she warded off the steaming patty in a bun, Gummer was ridiculed in the newspapers.   

Crucial to crisis escalation is the role of the media, which thrive on bad but exciting news. Topics not restricted to a political standpoint, such as health scares, attract broad coverage. Food poisoning was as important to in the Middle-England Daily Mail as the leftist Guardian, although the latter was perhaps the most shrill, because of its elevation of ‘experts’ over the penny-pinching Tory government, believing the latter to be ideologically-motivated when it was really the former.

To think that these alimentary upsets came to nothing would be mistaken. Like the heightened airport security following the Twin Towers attack in 2001, a crisis is never wasted by our rulers, consequently having a lasting legacy. A suddenly growing industry of food hygiene regulations and monitoring was instilled, with profitable business in training and kitchen fitting. Officious environmental health officers, relishing their powers, destroyed many a family-run café or shop. Larger firms, by contrast, were more able swallow the costs of the hygiene regime, and were less likely to be bullied due to their recourse to legal defence. 

In the late 1980s people feared food. In the early 2020s they were scared of each other, as the government’s Covid-19 behavioural psychology campaign cast us all as walking biohazards. The viral contagion has raised the stature of the World Health Organisation, which has exploited the crisis to push national leaders to sign a treaty allowing their constitutions to be overridden by a global pandemic response. Keeping us fearful, the UK government has launched an alert system whereby mobile telephone users will receive a message of ‘danger to life’, presumably with regular testing. The benevolent state is a sick joke.

‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary’

Henry Louis Mencken 

Niall McCrae is a mental health expert, with almost a hundred papers published in academic journals. He is also a social commentator, with regular appearances on George Galloway’s Kalima Horra debate show,. His books include The Moon and Madness (2012), Echoes from the Corridors (with Peter Nolan, 2016) and Moralitis: a Cultural Virus (with Robert Oulds, 2020).  He is an officer of the Workers of England Union.