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Hasty alert on sunflower oil leaves many bewildered

THE health alert issued on Friday concerning a probable case of contaminated sunflower oil from Ukraine will not go down in political history as an example of responsibility and transparency.

On the contrary, it bears all the marks of precipitation and confused management.

The Spanish health ministry, headed by Bernat Soria, has seen fit to take a maximum-security approach in the face of a possible public health risk, considering that the consumers had a right to know about the danger.

But it has gone about the warning process along such chaotic and contradictory lines that it has only managed to upset and disconcert consumers, without in fact containing a threat that has not even been quantified.

The hasty reaction has also been detrimental to the sunflower oil market, which is an important industry in Spain.

The ministry falls into contradiction when it recommends that people should not consume sunflower oil, while at the same time dismissing the possibility of acute intoxication.

It breeds confusion when it announces a health alert without actually prohibiting the sale of the contaminated product. And it loses any trace of serious credibility when the minister himself appears before the media, stating that there will be no announcement of which brands are supposedly affected, and that the alert will be lifted "in a short time".

These three inconsistencies, coming one after another, are sufficient to make the whole health alert look like an administrative excess, the product of a situation that has been badly interpreted, and then treated with an excessively nervous, uncertain hand.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Ukrainian authorities maintained a tomb-like silence.

France, The Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom – other countries who like Spain, import large amounts of sunflower oil – have been careful not to create unnecessary alarm among consumers, as long as there is no exact quantification of the possible hydrocarbon contamination. The same course has been taken by the European Union.

This overreaction is, no doubt, to be explained partly by the Spanish administration’s understandable fear of a recurrence of cases as politically destructive as the notorious rapeseed oil case in 1981, or the so-called "mad cow" disease more recently.

But the damage has already been done, and the confusion has been sown.

The right thing to do now is for the minister to appear again before the media; explaining, if he can, the contradictions mentioned above, and offering some suitable satisfaction to the injured parties – which include not only the companies that produce and distribute sunflower oil, but also, and principally, the bewildered consumers.

[El Pais / Expatica]