Ross Clark

Globophobia | 7 February 2004

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

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The great food terror is upon us again. On Friday, 23 January the EU Commission banned all imports of chickens and chicken products from Thailand in response to fears over ‘Avian flu’, which two Thais have contracted from the birds: ‘Although the risk of importing the virus in meat or meat products is probably very low the Commission wants to make sure that any possible transmission is avoided.’ The chances of contracting Avian flu from a Thai curry from your local takeaway aren’t just low, they are non-existent. Imports of live chickens and hatching eggs from Thailand to the EU are already banned; all meat that comes here is already cooked or frozen and is no more likely to give you flu than a tigerskin rug is likely to bite your head off.

No matter; when a Third World country is exporting 120,000 tonnes of chicken meat every year and your own poultry farmers are feeling the pinch, you can’t be too careful, eh? Just throw in a mention of the 1919 global flu pandemic and few are likely to argue with a precautionary ban. Avian flu isn’t even a disease which can pass from human to human: that is just a potential development. If we were really serious about infectious disease, we wouldn’t start by banning Thai curry but by screening live humans as they enter Europe. People really can spread Aids, tuberculosis and all manner of other nasties, but for some reason it is considered politically unacceptable to screen for these diseases.

The Chinese economy grew by 9 per cent last year and other Asian economies are beginning to stir, too. Somehow, one feels there may be a few more Far Eastern health scares on the way. Can you catch beri-beri from your hi-fi? Do pot noodles put you at risk of jungle fever?

Can you pick up a cold over the telephone from someone working in an Indian call centre? Probably not, but better safe than sorry.