Friday 10 May 2024

Hidden perils of private water supplies

A change of guidance on the regulations means that the number of private water supplies requiring risk assessment and sampling by local authorities has significantly increased, at a time when resources are thinly stretched.

Private water supplies come off and on the radar of regulatory attention. Ensuring their safety is one of those public health duties that can either be very important or not important at all, depending on location.

Doing the work well requires detailed legislative and practical knowledge of a niche but highly important area. Enforcement is assisted by persistent and tactful people skills. These also, sadly, are becoming less common than they were, with fewer environmental health staff treading familiar beats and engaging in face-to-face contact.

There’s another issue. Private water legislation assumes that if there is a problem, a notice must and will be served – no ifs. These days, most council enforcement policies favour advisory escalation, with notices served only as a last resort. It can be hard to reconcile these apparently conflicting enforcement cultures – ‘old school’ versus ‘softly softy’. But are they actually conflicting? Discuss. Surely, smart enforcement can combine both?

David Clapham is a UK environmental health officer and an expert in this area, who has written a standard reference work on the topic. He has specialised in private water supplies for 30 years, 13 of them as a consultant. Some users, he explains, are large – a stately home, a hospital, a factory, a theme park. Some are odd, like a Napoleonic era fort in the Solent, or a vinegar manufacturer in the west midlands. Most are small – down to a single dwelling.

Clapham has tramped down countless muddy lanes to inspect challengingly remote supplies. Very common is the farmer or cottage owner who insists: “My family has been drinking this water for generations and no-one has ever been ill.” How do you deal with that? It’s the private water supply version of the frustrating ‘hygiene hypothesis’ that every EHO occasionally comes up against: “Bugs are good for you”.

First comes a deep sigh, then a series of appropriately articulated microbiological, chemical, practical and historical arguments. For example, you might point out that in Walkerton, in Canada, in 2000, 2,000 people became ill and seven died, including a two-year-old child, when a communal supply became contaminated with E. coli 0157, from manure on farmland. “Yes,” comes the reply, “but my grandmother drank this water all her life …”

Uneven distribution

In terms of the totality of supplies, off-grid water is uncommon and unevenly distrusted, mainly in rural areas. It serves one percent of the English population, about twice that in Scotland. The most common supplies are boreholes, followed by springs. For springs, biological contamination from pastureland run-off poses the greatest risk, for boreholes it’s chemicals from the rocks that surface water has percolated through – fortunately often a long way.

For small users, in most cases, treatment involving filtration to precipitate minerals, oxygenation and disinfection using UV lamps, costing a few hundred pounds, can make water safe. Reverse osmosis filters, now affordable for small applications with particularly difficult problems, are also available. But, stresses Clapham, who trains EHOs in this area, source, pathway and receptor can work in myriad combinations – no two supplies are exactly the same.

Private water supplies, previously lightly regulated, first came onto the antennae of EHOs with regulations attached to Water industy Act 1991. The new duties ignited a career-long passion for Clapham and were the subject of his MSc research dissertation at Leeds University.

In 2009, new private water regulations augmented sampling with risk assessment. But sampling, he explains, which is cheaper than risk assessment, only goes so far as a public health tool, because, for springs, the level of contamination detected tends to correlate directly to rainfall. A supply can be unsafe one day and safe a few days later.

Legally, all private water supplies must be risk assessed every five years. Sampling is additionally required on a one to five-year cycle, depending on whether the water is used by the public or to produce food, the size of supply and its consequent health implications. In some cases, this area of EHOs work is not being done. Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) returns show that, in 2022, in England, only about 25% of smaller domestic private supplies had an in-date risk assessment. For large, commercial users it was 47%. In total, 13,000 supplies required a risk assessment. 

Changes to Regulation 8

Regulation 8 of the new rules applied in 2009 added a new category – distributed supplies. This means that water that comes from a mains water supply is piped, normally without storage or treatment, to end users, for example on a caravan park or an industrial estate, who pay an intermediary other than a water company.
Environmental health services argued, justifiably, that the health risks in this scenario, are extremely low. As reflected by DWI statistics, they did not devote thousands of EHO hours to pursuing what they viewed as a theoretical low risk. In recognition, in April 2013, the guidance was significantly modified. One caravan park from now on would count as a single premises and thus not a Reg 8 supply at all. This significantly cut EHOs’ workloads and allowed them to concentrate on other work.

Here’s the significant news. Following legal advice received by civil servants at the DWI, from January, the 2013 Regulation 8 guidance has been removed and the situation now seems to be the same as it was in 2009. In some cases, this will be significant for already hard-pressed environmental health services. The re-interpretation has added a new dimension to an escalating problem and to a growing list of things that need to be done by fewer people. Meanwhile, because money is tight, training budgets have often been cut.

Clapham says: “If you think of seaside authorities, for example, they may have hundreds of campsites and permanent and semi-permanent caravan sites. All of a sudden, they have a great deal of work, when there isn’t a huge risk because, in most cases, it’s just re-distributed mains water, which is not exposed to contaminants, going down proper pipes, with no tanks and no extra treatment. But you can never be completely sure.”

Can you afford to take that risk? Clearly not. Clapham observes: “I say to colleagues, ‘if you’ve gone along and you’ve risk assessed or sampled a supply and it is contaminated with faecal material and you haven’t served a notice, and a child contracts E. coli and dies, you’ll need to yourself, do you bear some responsibility’?”

There’s more bad news. The guidance suggests that enforcing this area also requires knowledge of the similarly complex Water Fittings Regulations.

Don’t worry. You’ve got this

But don’t worry, whether you are a service manager or practitioner. There are at least four reasons why this situation is not as worrying as it may, at first sight, appear.

One – notices served regarding private water supplies that have been appealed against have always been upheld.
Two, risk assessment and sampling are chargeable and designed to be self-financing. There is no maximum charge in England. Typically, a risk assessment would cost in the region of £360.

Three. Private water suppliers could be sent a Section 85 Notice, under the Water Industry Act, requiring them to send information. It’s an old wrinkle. There is no appeal. If it’s ignored it’s an offence. This approach can often reveal who is legally responsible for the supply.

Four. It’s not rocket science. Training for those new to this area of work or for those who are already doing it but who need a refresher, is available. A few hours in the classroom or on-line and a few field visits is enough, in nearly all cases, to equip staff with the skills that they require to confidently risk assess supplies. To help equip EH services, RHE Global is running some training courses.


Friday 26 April 2024

End time news

Tastes in fire and brimstone have changed little since the medieval era. With the countries of the Bible lands threatening to destroy each other, religious zealots are anxious to see divine signs in secular events – the ‘end time’ of their convoluted theologies.

Many are keen to identify, in these troubled times, signs of divine intervention. These doom merchants are tearing out handfuls of red meat from the Bible and flinging it around.

It’s an unedifying spectacle – a bunch of people scrambling to save their own asses, while they denounce other churches and denominations, whose members, they confidently predict, are on the road to Hell. 

They mainly draw their vocabulary – the Fiery Lake, the Lamb of God, the Wrath, the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the Book of Life, and so on – from some endlessy chewed over Biblical passages. They particularly partial to the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25, Revelation 4-22, Thessalonians 4 and parts of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all visualise versions of the of the end of the world, to maintain patriarchy and keep their adherents in line. Over the centuries, their intra-religious bickering has killed and maimed millions – not least in the Bible Lands.

The lesson of Lot 

Why can’t Jews and Christians follow the lesson of Lot, who is shown unfavourably in the Book of Genesis 13:11 selfishly grabbing the lush, fertile lands of the Jordon Valley from under Abraham’s nose. Why not drop vindictive dogma based on subjective textual interpretation and share life’s blessings? Be nice guys.

The Book of Revelation, which closes of the New Testament in a blood curdling finale, is a happy hunting ground for these Armageddon pedlars, who can identify a false prophet at the drop of the hat.

The imagery of Revelation, is suffused through western culture. We know the catch phrases. Most people don’t know the chronology, even if they have been to Sunday School, which focuses on tame and uncontroversial parables. Why would they?
The chronology goes as follows. After a low-key start, Revelation gets lively in chapter four, with opening of the seven seals (a seal is a scroll). This signals the beginning of the Tribulation. 

The seven seals 

The opening of the first seal (6:1) give us the four horsemen of the apocalypse – white, red, black and pale – the rider of the white one is sometimes identified as the Antichrist. That would be Pope Vincent, or Bill Gates. The sun turns black, the moon turns red, stars fall to earth (6:12). But this just an hors d’oeuvre.

When the seventh seal is opened, seven angels appear, and they blow on seven trumpets. See a pattern here? The first blast causes a hail made of fire and blood to burn up a third of the trees on the planet (8:17), the second turns a third of the sea into blood killing, everything that lives there and a third of all sailors – a bit arbitrary.=

When the fifth trumpet blows (9:1) Satan is given the key to the bottomless pit – a tactical manoeuvre on god’s part. The sky darkens and smoke and locusts issue from this fiery hole. Looking like armoured horses, with human faces and the sting of scorpions, the locusts torture the unrighteous for five months. Does God have anger issues? 

Armageddon outta here

With the sixth trumpet (9:13), God unleashes four wrathful angels who slaughter a third of the human race. He hasn’t finished yet. As a final gesture, he tips out seven bowls of wrath, which bring about seven plagues – festering sores, rivers and seas turned do blood, a blazing sun that shrivels flesh – more torture, on an industrial scale.

It’s the main event – Armageddon – rounded off by the biggest earthquake ever seen that reduces a city to ruins – it could be Jerusalem, Rome, or Babylon depending on your preference. As parting short, God rains down forty kilogram hailstones.

A new player appears and ends the Tribulation – a rider on a white horse, leading the armies of heaven (19: 11-16). ‘He treads the wine press of the fury of God’. He is the King of Kings. It’s the Second Coming! The tide is turning. Satan is ‘bound’ bringing about a thousand years of peace and righteousness begin (20:2). Righteous people who have died are resurrected.

 After a thousand years are up. Satan is released from Hell (20:7). He summons a force as numberless as the sand on the seashore. There is another one-sided bust-up. Satan is thrown into a lake of burning sulphur, where he will burn forever (20:10). Next, God, on his white throne, opens up the Book of Judgement on the living and the dead (20:11). A second resurrection occurs. Even those in Hell are given a chance (13). The Holy City, a New Jerusalem appears (21:1) in which the righteous will dwell forever. It’s the end of the end days. 

The crux of the matter

So, here’s the crucial point, theologically, for end of the world watchers. Have these events – the Tribulation, the seals, trumpets and bowls, Armageddon, the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement happened, are happening now or they yet to happen? Oceans of ink have been expended on these issues – a dismal swamp of exegesis. Over many centuries, proponents of theological turf wars have developed their own shorthand.

For ‘full preterists’ the events recounted in Revelation occurred in the past, including the Final Judgement. Far more common, for Protestant churches, is ‘partial preterism’. This is the vanilla option. Under this scenario, the nasty stuff has already happened – the violent retribution of Revelation from 4 to 19. It corresponds to the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in AD70 – thus, it was all the Jews’ fault. The nice stuff – the Second Coming and the Day of Judgement – haven’t happed yet. It’s just a matter of saying one’s prayers and waiting. Who knows for how long.

Then we have the full-colour futurists. Their creed is modern. It originated in the nineteenth century, took off like wildfire with the radio preaching of the 1920 and came to dominate US Protestantism in the 1970s, with the rise of Baptist and Presbyterian Churches, whose slick Bible thumping preachers dispensed old-fashioned fire and brimstone on TV. Their lapel-grabbing, no holds barred style travelled back across the pond to the UK, to the horror of the sherry sipping clerisy.

Futurists maintain that we are still awaiting the Tribulation or that we are in it – citing modern diseases and nuclear weapons as God’s signs. It’s the Apocalyptic, socially conservative religion of the red Republican states. Many adherents are ‘dispensationalist’. That is, they believe in the literal truth of the Bible.

Aerial event

They like the idea of rapture (Thessalonians 4) in which the resurrected and living faithful will mingle in the clouds in an ‘aerial event’. Their hell is not metaphorical but real and it is eternal. Key to their ‘dispensational premillennialism’ is a ‘pre-Tribulation rapture’.

That’s important to them. The rapture, deemed to be vulgar by Catholics and other Protestants, can happen at any time. Being pre-Tribulation means that those who have accepted Jesus into their lives – the bar for entry into their church is low – will be spared the plagues of boils, scorpion stings and angelic slaughter that will engulf the rest of us.

The Jews may not enjoy this free pass. But ultimately, they believe, the good ones, unlike Moslems and members of doctrinally unsound Protestant churches, will earn a place in heaven, after a bit of chastening punishment from the man upstairs.

Contradictory positions

Never accuse the Catholics of shying away from simultaneously holding two contradictory positions. The Church of Rome has promoted both preterist and futurist theology in its history. It was a defence mechanism. For centuries, Protestants said the Pope was the Antichrist (Revelation 13:7). It this part of the Bible happened before the Catholic church began, or would happen in the future, the Pope couldn’t be the bad guy, could he? It’s a great example of creative ambiguity.

Is any of this stuff true? Of course not. It’s nonsense, dating from the time of a geocentric view of the universe and the burning of witches. The Jehovah’s Witness confidently predicted the return of Christ to earth in 1914. Some of them believe that Satan and his demons were cast down to earth in that year and that he rules the current world order.

 Everyone should just grow up. The preachers should get proper jobs. Those proclaiming Biblical evidence of Armageddon are stirring up hatred and helping to bring it about through their very actions – a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe that is their intention.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

The gentle art of faking

The six-day Glasgow meat trial of 1889 was a milestone in public health. It led to the enhanced inspection of abattoirs. But fraud, truth denial and producer prioritisation delayed the effective regulation of the meat and dairy industries for many decades. 

On the 9th of May 1889, Peter Fyfe, who had been appointed as Glasgow City Council’s chief sanitary inspector in 1885, saw something troubling in the city’s Moore Street slaughterhouse. Two carcasses showed red discolouration and contained nodules well known to indicate the presence of tuberculosis. He duly seized and condemned the carcasses from their sellers, Hugh Couper and Charles Moore, judging them unfit for human consumption.

This state of the meat that he had found was by no means unusual. The barely regulated abattoirs of Victorian Britain were disgusting by modern standards. Animals were packed into filthy, overcrowded pens and killed within sight of each other. There was no legal requirement for post or antemortem animal inspection. Diseased cuts and offal from emaciated, often decomposing carcasses were consumed by the poor, who relied on cheap meat for their meagre diets. Awareness of animal diseases and their zoonotic effects was limited. 

In addition, many scams were prevalent in the meat trade. Norwich sanitary inspector, Bernard Penny, wrote of butchers in The Sanitary Journal in March, 1910: “These gentlemen are past masters of the gentle art of faking and can dress a dead lamb or calf and clean up an old cow or a weedy steer in a marvellous manner. What with the inflation of veal and lamb (misdescription of cheaper meat) and stripping and cleaning of beasts, it often takes very careful inspection to detect anything wrong.”

Milk was also a nutritional staple of the poor, particularly for children and infants. But dairies and cowsheds were as unhygienic as abattoirs, so the purity of milk could not be relied upon, and it was often watered down. It was a serious public health issue. Infected milk was a primary cause of streptococcal infection, typhoid, scarlet fever and diphtheria, as well as tuberculosis.

Over the Victorian period, protective legislation, which was some of the first in the world, slowly caught up as urban populations swelled in size. UK statutes on food composition, powers to seize and condemn foodstuffs and laws to clean up cowsheds and dairy herds appeared from the middle of the century. They were enforced by medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors. However, in his bold enforcement action of 1889, Peter Fyfe, a prolific writer and lecturer, who devoted his life to improving housing, air quality and food safety in Glasgow, was going out on a limb, pushing the law to its limits.

The science of tuberculosis

It makes sense that if food stinks it will make you ill. But links between bacteria and disease were still being discovered. German pioneer microbiologist Robert Koch had identified the bacterium causing tuberculosis – a milestone of medical science – in 1882. It was known that both cows and cattle contracted TB. In humans, TB, which was untreatable, was ubiquitous in over-crowded slums. Called phthisis, then consumption, this scourge of the poor was dreaded under another name, ‘the white plague’. It is thought to have been responsible for a quarter of human deaths in the nineteenth century – but, in 1889, a link between bovine and human forms of the disease had yet to be conclusively established.

Fyfe and other sanitary inspectors were convinced that TB did transmit from the milk and meat of cattle, causing a massive toll of human illness and death. They were extremely concerned by the extent of TB in Britain’s beef and dairy herds – it was estimated that a fifth of cows were affected by the disease – but felt that their hands were tied behind their back. Legislation was patchy. The Public Health Act 1875 (1867 in Scotland) allowed unsound meat and animals to be seized, for the first time, by local authorities but the powers were sparingly applied.

Angered by an injustice, Fyfe, who was a chess player and dramatist, as well as a health campaigner, asked eloquently in The Sanitary Journal in 1910: “Who can calculate the mass of human suffering, the numberless army of pale-faced pilgrims in their weary march to the consumptive’s grave, whose painful progress from birth to death has been caused by a draught of disease bearing milk?”.

In practice, in rural areas, the meat trade was dealt with leniently by magistrates, who often had close connections to farmers, while urban authorities were hugely under-resourced and they had to tackle slum housing and poor air quality and seek to reduce the spread a host of communicable diseases, as well as cleaning up the food chain. In 1911, Manchester's sanitary department employed only 100 staff for a city of 1.5 million people. Rotting and pathogenic food was a major health menace. Sanitary inspectors annually seized and destroyed hundreds of tonnes of unfit mean, fish shellfish and fruit and vegetable.

Then as now, vested interest in the food chain were implacably opposed to reform. The farmers, abattoirs, wholesalers and butchers providing the nation’s meat did not want even emaciated and diseased carcasses to be removed from the food chain.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, other countries, notably the USA, had successfully cleaned up their cattle and dairy herds. But the UK lagged behind. Farmers vigorously objected to a system requiring them to certify their animals as healthy and opposed pasteurisation – a life-saving measure which was well understood by the beginning of the century. To support this stance, they denied that infected milk or animal products caused tuberculosis and other illnesses in humans – lobbying issues that contributed, in 1908, to the formation of the National Farmers' Union.  

Need for vigilance

Because the economic stakes were so high, Fyfe’s seizure of two grossly diseased carcasses in Glasgow led to an important test case The butchers involved – Couper and Moore, contested his action. This triggered a six-day trial, heard in May and June 1899, in which both sides called numerous witnesses. 

The trial was extensively reported, well beyond the medical and trade press. The defence maintained that, as only parts of the carcasses were diseased, they should not have been seized. The prosecution argued, citing studies that were still not universally accepted, that science had shown that the presence of the tubercular bacillus in part of an animal would render the whole dangerous.

The case went well for Fyfe – the judge found in Glasgow’s favour. Following this verdict, councils with meat inspectors, including Liverpool, Belfast, Leeds and Newcastle now began to seize whole carcasses with localised signs of disease – a measure that must have saved many lives. 

Eliminating diseased carcasses at the end of food chain was effective in cleaning up herds. It also circumvented the many tricks of the trade of the meat trade to pass off sub-standard products as safe to eat. Outraged butchers lobbied their MPs and the Board of Agriculture, complaining that they would be driven out of business.

Delighted by the verdict, The Lancet wrote that the sale of tuberculous meat is now “illegal …. even where disease is limited in distribution and the carcass otherwise apparently sound”. The Meat Trades Journal pronounced the judgment to be “momentous”. However, these conclusions proved to be premature. Battles between town and country, regulated and regulator were to continue, and the science of tuberculosis was not settled.

At the instigation of the Local Government Board, a Royal Commission on tuberculosis in animals was commissioned in 1896 It called for meat inspectors to be trained and qualified in animal pathology, but fudged the contamination issue. A second Royal Commission was set up in 1901. Its work dragged on for a decade, further delaying clarity.

The Public Health (Meat) Regulations, which set standards for slaughterhouse inspection and consolidated local authority powers, did not come into force until 1924. As we have seen in another blog (The battle for safe milk) regulation of the dairy industry was also delayed for many decades. Many private bills requiring the certification of dairy herds, some introduced by the London County Council, were successfully blocked by land owning and farming interests.

Edith Summerskill’s Milk (Special Designations) Act systematically tackling sick herds and ushering in widespread pasteurisation, was not passed until 1949 – one of the most costly to life and egregious delays in UK public health history. Pasteurisation did not become compulsory in Scotland until 1983 and in England, Wales and Norther Ireland two years later.

The Glasgow meat case is interesting because it illustrates themes that always apply to regulation. Science evolves and is subject to interpretation and regulators and the regulated often have incompatible agendas. The worst hygiene horrors of the Victorian era may have passed into history, but new and novel threats will aways emerge and fraud will never disappear. 

Fyfe was feted in his city and was to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His successfully pursued case has much to teach us about the need for vigilance in public health and for precautionary, impartial science-based practice, based on the best available understanding. These principles are too often forgotten, ignored or compromised by politicians.

Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986 He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018. The views expressed here are purely his own.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

On food safety and amnesia


The UK is in desperate need of an independent, non-ministerial department responsible for food and health, which champions and protects the public. Political memories are short. We have forgotten that we used to have one. It was called the Food Standards Agency.

News that hospital admissions related to food-linked illnesses in England are rising steeply have led a well-respected expert, Tim Lang, food policy professor at City University, to say that the public is now ‘playing Russian roulette with food’.

The Guardian revealed this month that hospitals recorded three admissions for every 100,000 people for salmonella last year, an all-time high. Admissions caused by campylobacter, the most common cause of food poisoning, and E. coli, which can be the most deadly, are also on an upward trend.

The UK Health Security Agency may attribute this to advancements in molecular diagnostics, but Lang, and other commentators, point to other probable factors. They include Brexit, which has drastically reduced inspection of high-risk imported foods, the stripping of capacity from local government and the move to self-regulation for businesses, both in food safety and port health controls.

Lang told RHE Global: “Food safety is taking a low priority. It has fallen off the government’s agenda. History shows us that it takes something to go wrong for this policy area to lead to a public health response.”

UK history bears this out. In 1984, the deaths of 19 elderly people in the Stanley Royd Hospital in West Yorkshire from salmonella led to tighter legal controls. In 1996, an outbreak of E. coli 0158 in Lanarkshire that claimed 21 lives caused a similar public outcry and calls for legislative action. The BSE epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s was partly attributed to unhygienic abattoirs. Their inspection was transferred from local authorities to a new body, the Meat Hygiene Service, in 1995.

Creation of new agency

The fallout from Lanarkshire and BSE led to another important change. In 2000, a revolutionary new body, the Food Standards Agency was set up. It was given a distinctive green logo and guaranteed political independence. It held its meetings in public, which was unheard of for what was, effectively, a branch of the civil service. Its live-streamed meetings were well attended and reported in the national press. Reporting to the Department of Health, the FSA was tasked with two main purposes – to advise ministers and to protect the public “from risks arising from food”.

It became the lead body for UK food safety systems which are enforced by local government officers called EHOs – a system that began with Victorian public health legislation. The agency began strongly, it dealt successfully with emerging food safety threats, introduced a food hygiene rating system against strong opposition, ‘scores on the doors’, and significantly reduced campylobacter from infected poultry, with a targeted campaign.

In retrospect, amnesia began the day after it set up shop. As memories of Stanley Royd, BSE and Lanarkshire faded, the FSA was downgraded and stripped of powers. In 2010, perceived as ‘too political’ by a new government, particularly in its advocacy of traffic light labelling, it lost its responsibility for nutrition policy, including labelling, to the Department of Health. Whitehall culture, which is resistant to openness, was reasserting itself. The ten-year old agency narrowly avoided complete abolition by health secretary Andrew Lansley in 2010, when the political urge to deregulate was at its height.

The FSA survived by the skin of its teeth, but the shift of governments over the past 14 years away from positive health interventions, massive de-investment in local government and the UK’s detachment from Europe, with its well-developed scientific and food alert services and controls, have left us with a publicly run food safety service which is a shadow of what it was.

New threats emerge

The world is more complicated than when the FSA began. Allergies and intolerances, acrylamide, dioxins and new foodborne viruses have entered the vocabulary of food safety. The subject is highly political, as it always has been. Impartial advice to government risks being polluted by producer interests. Demarcation lines are important – are obesogenic environments and ultra-processed foods legitimate areas for regulation?

Consumers are taking about food and health more than ever but policy making has gone back into the shadows. We are in desperate need of an independent, non-ministerial executive department which wrests policy making from civil service invisibility and the interests of food manufacturers and champions the public – something like the original Food Standard Agency. And funding for frontline food safety services needs to be restored.

The implications of not having such an agency, and of decades of under-resourcing, are beginning to show, with a reported increase in the main forms of infectious intestinal disease contracted from food. History risks repeating itself. The consequences could become even more serious.

Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986 He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018 and his written for many publications including The Guardian and The Observer. The views expressed here are purely his own.

Monday 19 February 2024

Why George Orwell might have liked Wetherspoons

My relationship with beer has been the longest and most constant of my life. However, it’s getting harder to find ‘proper beer’ and the ‘perfect pub’ is elusive. Maybe that’s true for everybody. It certainly was for George Orwell. 

If pubs did not exist, humans would invent them – come to think of it, humans did invent them. In the UK, a ‘public house’ is not like a ‘bar’ as the term is understood in other countries. Cut to the chase, we’re talking about premises in which alcohol is consumed and crisps are eaten.

There is a multiplicity of terms for establishments serving different combinations food and drink in different permutations in different cultures and at different times of day. And here are innumerable synonyms for the UK’s ‘pub’ – ‘tavern’, ‘inn’, ‘alehouse’, ‘boozer‘, ‘hostelry’, ‘rub a dub’ … I could go on … but I won’t.

It’s pretty surprising that, despite the heterogeneous origins of our language and culture, a pub in medieval times, say the twelfth century Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, which claims to be ‘the oldest inn in England’ would be largely recognisable to a modern drinker – a lout hogging the darts board, unfriendly locals eyeing up crusaders who had popped in for a quick one, the jukebox playing ghastly lute music. (I made that last one up!)

This is not the place to describe the customs and practices of the English pub – the ‘invisible queue’, convention of the melee around the bar (ignore that at your peril), their peculiar relationship with food, coffee and children, those English institutions ‘last orders’ and ‘lock-ins’, how layouts and terminologies have evolved over the centuries and how these subtle conventions are imprinted within our culture and how we understand ourselves. Let’s assume these as a given.

Me and pubs go back a long way. I was born the in the late 1950s. When I was a child, my parents would leave me outside, in the car, when they went for a drink during Saturday shopping, or one of their Sunday ‘drives’. My dad only ever drank bitter, my mum Barley Wine – syrupy beer of almost lethal potency. 

Having selected the location for their libation, my dad would periodically bring soft drinks and packets of crisps to the car, in which I had been left, to check that I was all right. That would count as abusive behaviour today. Times have certainly changed. This is not a criticism of my parents by the way – it was normal behaviour in those more innocent times.

That’s how my relationship with beer began, at first surreptitiously. It has been the longest and most constant relationship of my life. I have attempted to be faithful to my dad’s tipple, but it’s getting harder and harder, with rise of pale ales (not as they used to be) and ‘craft beers’. 

Note: in my own submission, I am not an absolutist, or a beer bore, just a person of my generation. I never really took to lager, or daily showers instead of weekly baths, or moisturising creams. I like my beer to be bitter and to be called bitter.

Quite often, for me, sitting in pub provides the starting point of a poem. For me, the optimum point of creativity is after two pints. The first pint is just a warm-up. I maintain that beer should go into your body at room temperature, in order to work its alchemy. After two pints, you either want to stay or to leave. You may be putting some thoughts and lines together, in your head. With luck you have written them down in a retrievable form. Notebooks are good. It took me years of fumbling in my pockets for scraps of paper to realise that.

After three pints, you have reached the point of no return and recording lucid thought is unlikely. Imaginative fluidity has surpassed cognitive and motor skills. Landing point has now been reached – the ears have become attuned to the thud of darts and the blurred banality of Sky Sports, the palate has adapted to the texture and flavour of the pub’s chosen crisp brand and the ears to the treasures and surprises of the juke box.

Isn’t being ‘in the moment’ poetry it itself – the state of grace that we are all seeking. We are all both insiders and outsiders in different contexts and It’s possible to experience an epiphany, and, later, to record it. That’s what art does. ‘Emotion recollected in tranquility,’ as Wordsworth, explained.

Ultimately, it’s more important that people get along and don’t kill each than poems are written or paintings painted. Pubs offer us an opportunity to sit cheerfully with other people, commenting on the news, or a football game, or learning how to zumba, secure in shared identity. Isn't that what we all want – whether it's in the Frog and Duckpond, the Dog and Disc Drive or the Angry Vegan? 

Search for the perfect pub

In 1946, George Orwell, wrote a column for the London Evening Standard, outlining the characteristics of his perfect pub. He chose to call it the Moon Under Water. But it didn’t exist. The place that he described was actually a composite of all of his favourite elements – you know, the cozy log fire, the dimpled mug with a handle, the absence of boozed-up rowdies. He reflected, sadly, that all of them are almost never found in the same place.

He wrote: ‘If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.’

I suspect, from the evidence of his ruminations, that Orwell would have liked J.D. Wetherspoon’s pubs. The chain began in 1979. Its business model, cheap well-served pints for a broad cross-section of the population and affordable, no-frills food served all day long – has undoubtedly benefited from the poverty and economic inequality that deepened since Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Ironically, or possibly not, the owner of the chain, Tim Martin, has always been a fervent Brexit believer (although he has recently professed that it was the ‘wrong kind’ of Brexit). His leave credentials caused some people to boycott his pubs. I did, briefly, but was lured back in. 

I’m pretty sure that Orwell, an old-Etonian and a puritan and an outsider both to his own class and to the working class, would have enjoyed drinking in a Wetherspoon’s pub. Their characteristics tick off almost all of his Evening Standard wish-list – the absence of music, generally decorous behaviour, plain homely food and tobacco-friendliness, for example. There’s nearly always a garden to smoke in. 

The fug of proletarian solidarity in a ’Spoons would undoubtedly have put a contented smile on Orwell’s face. He would have gone outside for his roll-ups. Funny thing is, they don’t work for me – creatively. I’ve often tried writing poems in Mr Martin’s establishments and they always come out the same. They evoke most strongly sitting in the waiting room of a bus station or an A&E department, suffering from a lingering chronic affliction. There’s always a melancholic feeling of failure and hopelessness – a suspicion that that life is going on elsewhere. Maybe it’s the low lighting, or the smell of instiutional food, or the laminated menus. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. 

Do we ever find our ‘perfect pub’? I have a feeling that some people have. It may be close to their house, literally their ‘local’. They may have chosen their house because of a particular pub or have been gifted it by serendipity. I haven't found mine. Yet. I am still searching. I am drinking hopefully. 

Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986 He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018 and his written for many publications including The Guardian and The Observer. The views expressed here are purely his own. Or are they?

Sunday 18 February 2024

Guarding the borders

Border health checks for EU food are back. Will a simplified digitised system with less human inspection make us safer? Or is it just hype?

Normally, it takes a health scare for port health to get into the news. The service, which is designed to protect us from infected, smuggled and misdescribed food, is well below the radar. It's essential – as the health threats of dioxins, eggs infected with salmonella and ‘horsegate’ in 2013, have recently shown us.

In most EU countries food safety controls for animal products are organised under veterinary services. In the UK, the job falls to officials known as EHOs or EHPs, who work for councils and port health authorities. We don't have a national system.  

In 1993, when the single market began, official controls of live animals and animal and plant products imported from the EU ended. This January, after long delays, they came back. The government has long promised us ‘frictionless trade’. It has taken Defra's civil servants five years to design a Single Trade Window in an attempt to match the hype, not just for the EU, but for the world.

Civil servants love acronyms. We now have a Border Target Operating Model, or Border TOM, border control posts, BCPs, including airports, some newly-created and some, controversially, inland. Common health entry documents, CHEDs, are now channelled through a national Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed or IPAFF system.

Digitised health certificates are applied to both imports and exports, through a single gateway. Under a ‘trusted trader’ scheme, businesses offering evidence of meeting regulatory requirements, will be exempted from some official controls. The system is designed to be self-financing.

There was always going to be a giant clashing of gears in January, when the UK's border control system, locally funded and designed in the nineteenth-century, was reconnected to the EU. A huge problem is that we don't have enough European style vets to work at our ports, checking the riskiest animal and food imports. Perhaps, our EHPs could do the job?

It could be argued that our leaving the EU has facilitated, by default, a streamlined and digitally enabled biosecurity system that we should have had years ago. Or, at we at greater risk? 

Martin Walker, independent port heath consultant, says: “It’s difficult to argue against the rationale of having risk-based controls. My feeling is that it will all depend on the detail. My main reservation is about the reduction in physical controls and checks.  

“Generally speaking, they are going to be reduced from 20% to an expected level of 1%, as the default. There will be fewer consignments being looked at. A lot of the new system will be purely based on paperwork checks, rather than looking at products of animal origin, which is how you often pick up problems.” 

Will the new system work? It will only be tested by a threat or crisis. Experience tells us that these turn up fairly often. 

Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986. He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018. The views expressed here are purely his own.


Saturday 13 January 2024

Continuing scandal of invisible deaths

More than two people a week are killed by a partner in the UK – mainly women. Most of the victims are invisible. 

Welcome new legislation places a duty on social landlords to identify and act on signs of domestic abuse. 

Hidden in coroners’ reports and databases, deaths caused by domestic abuse are so common that they are rarely even reported. Most victims are female and we live in a society that recognise male violence as a norm – watch any episode of EastEnders, witness the recent crass remarks of home secretary, James Cleverly, on date rape drugs. 

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, 1.7 million women and 700,000 men experienced domestic abuse in 2022. The latest Home Office figures, for 2020/21, show 113 deaths from this cause – more than two per week. Three-quarters of victims were female, a quarter male. Close to half of the deaths were caused by stabbing, the second most common method was blunt force trauma.

The public, rightly, is horrified when a baby or child is beaten or starved by those responsible for their care – according to the NSPCC, an average of 58 young children dies each year, due to abuse or neglect. The most horrific cases, like the recent ones of Victoria ClimbiĆ© or Arthur Labinjo-Hughes are routinely covered on the front pages of newspapers, with heart-rending photographs. The papers demand, on our behalf, “how could we have prevented this tragedy?”.

Adult deaths caused by abusers who are family members don’t seem to prompt the same visceral emotional response and a collective call for action. Its partly because they are so common. It’s also because systems that could facilitate learning what went wrong and acting on it aren’t working.

Coroners’ preventable deaths reports don’t recognise domestic abuse as a category. The main focus of Community Safety Partnership, another reporting mechanism, is on crime and disorder. The Home Office is brilliant at collecting statistics. It captures, chillingly, who killed whom, with that. Legally, it is responsible for collating the data from domestic homicide reviews, which have been in place since 2011.

It is supposed to identify serious failings and common themes and to communicate lessons to the media. These, in turn, should be picked up by public bodies – such as the police and probation services, social services, councils and housing association. But it isn't happening. The Home Office is not culturally suited to such a role.

Wider definition of domestic abuse

In the UK, reporting and learning mechanisms are lagging far behind new and welcome legislation, in an environment which has become sensitised more than ever to gender-based and institutional violence. Instigated by Theresa May’s government, the Domestic Abuse Act of 2021 was a much-needed and long overdue piece of legislation. It created a statutory definition of domestic abuse including emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic categories and it established a Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales.

This act’s influence, and a culture change, can be seen in Social Housing (Regulation) Act of 2023, which followed a white paper in 2020. The act – a reaction to the negligence and stripping out of regulations that caused the tragic Grenfell towerblock fire of 2018, sets out a charter laying out tenants’ rights, alongside a newly-empowered social housing regulator, professional training requirements and the welcome concept of consumer standards.

Section 136 and 137 of the white paper specifically mentioned domestic abuse and policies and practices on domestic abuse are required from social landlords, following a dedicated consultation, in the consumer standards. They are required to protect tenants, not just from physical conditions but from abusers, within a new set of professional parameters.

Domestic abuse expert Dr Kelly Henderson welcomes the fact that this narea of danger has been, albeit belatedly, included within the sphere of housing management. Her PhD research was on the role of housing in a coordinated community response to domestic abuse. 

She has worked in social housing management up to director level and now runs a company, Addressing Domestic Abuse, that trains and advises local authorities, housing managers, tenants, police forces and the Home Office. Henderson and legal expert Anna Bennet of Devonshires explained to Inside Housing magazine last year that whereas, before, the focus was on tenants bringing a complaint to their landlord, new standards mean that managers must act on any signs that may be related to domestic abuse.

She stresses: “I think it's important to get the point across that domestic abuse can happen to anybody, regardless of their income, but that you have fewer opportunities to escape abuse if you don't have resources.” Social housing landlords a special responsibility. In the best cases, they have their ears to the ground, they form communities. They are in a good position to identify and help to prevent domestic abuse – if they can’t, who can?

Signs of a problem may be far more subtle than bruising or other indications of physical violence. For a housing manager it may manifest in a non-obvious way, in terms of a tenant’s repair history or in patterns of rent arrears.

She says: “Imagine if there's been three bathroom door lock repairs in a year, that could be a red flag. Does the tenant have control of money and their mobile phone? A tenant might say something in a throwaway comment like ‘you need to ask my partner about this’.”

Of course, such signs may have nothing to do with domestic abuse. The most important skill is listening. She says: “It’s important for you to know about the help services that are available in your area and to explain them. But the worst thing you can do is for the victim to feel ‘I've said no to support once, so I can't ask again’. It's about keeping the door open. So that that when person feels that they are ready, they can come back.”

She adds: “The victim may not want to go down the route of taking legal action. They might just the abuse to stop and to move to a new home and start again.” 

Need to tackle causes

Policies should facilitate management transfer for the victim or, in some cases, the perpetrator – too often it is the victim, usually a woman, who loses her home. And they should be proactive and preventive. She says: “The cause of domestic abuse is perpetrators and we need to tackle the cause. What we are largely doing at the moment is picking up the pieces after them and putting the victim in a refuge.” 

Frequently, she says, domestic abuse is incorporated by landlords into policies on antisocial behaviour. It’s a topic that requires its own specific response. But merely having a policy doesn’t mean that the duty to protect tenants has been fulfilled.

For many landlords, consumer and rights-focused social housing management has just begun. Inevitably, the cultural change that it signals won’t happen overnight. Arguably, a professional re-set is required, which has far-reaching implications. She says: You can't just have consumer standards, introduce domestic abuse, and then not have domestic abuse awareness as a required skill in professional training.” 

Local authorities are resource starved, with many competing priorities, and there aren’t enough shelters. She says: “I think the government needs to invest more money into refuges and to give local authorities ring-fenced funding to provide appropriate services.” 

But money and law, in themselves, are not enough. A holistic community response is required. She says: “It's not just one organisation’s responsibility. It’s something that we all have a duty to act on. If you work in the housing sector, you need to know that it's part of your job to recognise and respond to domestic abuse. That's what I would like to happen.”

Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986 He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018. The views expressed here are purely his own.