Down to Brass Tacks

The Veterinary Record
Vol 104 No 20, May 19, 1979


There is always a danger in producing what is considered to be “good television”, particularly on a scientific subject, that some of the more mundane yet pertinent facts will be ignored. That was the case in the BBC2 programme Brass Tacks broadcast on May 8.

The programme looked at modern methods of intensive animal husbandry and the potential risk to the public health from antibiotics and other medicinal substances (see below). But as was inevitable given the type of presentation, a number of issues were raised that were not satisfactorily answered.

It will no doubt be argued that the purpose of such programmes as Brass Tacks is primarily to stimulate discussion. To that end, Brass Tacks took pot shots at antibiotic sales (legal and illegal), intensive rearing systems, conditions in abattoirs, transferable resistance and so on. In doing so it never fully stated a case and was sometimes careless over detail. For example, the narrator’s comments about veterinary surgeon was bound ethically not only to illustrated by film of small animal formulations not used in the way suggested (sic).

It was left to speakers on the radio ‘phone-in programmes to point out that veterinary surgeons do not make fortunes from the sale of drugs. And that the veterinary surgeon was bound ethically not only to protect the confidentiality of his relationships with his clients but also to tell a farmer if he believed that the farmer was mistreating an animal or misusing a drug.

Controversies should be aired and people have the right to choose whether they wish to have cheap food and, possibly, take something of a health risk, or change to a different method of farming altogether; one which would be more expensive but would be less reliant on the routine use of drugs and chemicals.

The issues involved in the production of relatively low price meat are numerous: energy and the amount needed to produce a meal, animal welfare, standards of hygiene in UK and European abattoirs, the black market sale of drugs and legislation governing medicines, detection of residues and the inspection of meat. Any one of those would have lent itself to an hour-long programme.

The health risk dwelt on at greatest length was that from salmonella, an organism which is easily destroyed by proper cooking, as Mr Donald Haxby pointed out. The programme did not delve so deeply into other possible health hazards or their prevention. Nor did it ask why the UK abattoirs are taking so long to come up to European standards.

But the representatives of the NFU and the poultry industry perhaps put too much emphasis on big business economics. Health and welfare are emotionally charged issues and fears are rarely allayed by arguments of £100 million turnovers, £100 million exports and 100,000 jobs being lost.

It might have been more to the point to emphasise that the present day consumer is better served with safe meat and poultry than any previous generation – which is not to say that all problems have been solved. Such programmes as Brass Tacks do at least, for all their shortcomings, make the public think about how the neatly packaged chicken in the supermarket got there.

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