Would she really enjoy cooking for a bunch of strangers? Amy Fleming went to find out.Amy Fleming
Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC) responsible for hundreds of infections, freedom of information request reveals
Sixteen people have died in the Manchester area in the past four years from a highly resistant "superbug", according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC) has been responsible for hundreds of infections, with 17 people dying, including 16 in Manchester, the BBC has reported.
It said 1,241 patients were affected within the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS foundation trust area from 2009 to 2013, with the numbers increasing year on year.
Sixty-two patients at the trust have suffered blood poisoning – with 14 confirmed deaths within 30 days of infection. Two other deaths have been confirmed this year.
KPC is resistant to carbapenems – a group of antibiotics that, in many cases, are regarded as the last effective defence against multi-resistant bacterial infections.
The trust said the enzyme, which KPC uses to render antibiotics ineffective, had entered other bacteria, including E coli and enterobacter.
The trust said all the patients who had died were seriously ill, such as with diabetes, kidney problems or transplant rejection. Others had leukaemia or other forms of cancer.
It said: "This trust has and continues to make strenuous efforts to control and reduce this infection. We continue to work very closely with Public Health England at both a local and national level to develop solutions for the long-term management of patients."
The Christie NHS foundation trust in Manchester, a specialist cancer hospital, said nine patients had been colonised with KPC last year.
Two cases of KPC have also been found at New Cross hospital in Wolverhampton, with one patient dying in the past two years. Its microbiologist, Dr Mike Cooper, said the patient was 96 and her form of KPC was still susceptible to some drugs.
"There's a huge element of luck in this," he said. "Either Manchester has been extremely unlucky or we have been extremely lucky not to have more cases."
Ten patients have also been colonised at the University Hospital of Stoke-on-Trent. Two had urinary tract infections, but neither patient died of blood poisoning.
Stoke microbiologist Jeorge Orendi said: "Unlike the situation in certain hospitals in Manchester and London, fortunately in our hospital and catchment area, carbapenemase producers have remained rare to date."
UN assistant secretary general says deadly outbreak, which has been blamed on UN troops, demands decisive action
Haiti needs a "Marshall plan" for water and sanitation to quell a cholera epidemic which poses a major threat to the Caribbean and Latin America, according to the UN assistant secretary general.
Pedro Medrano Rojas, who is co-ordinating the response in Haiti, is visiting European capitals this week to drum up support for the faltering effort to deal with an epidemic that has killed 8,540 since 2010 and infected almost 700,000 people.
Studies have shown the cholera strain was probably introduced to the country by UN troops from Nepal, who were deployed in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 217,000 people.
Evidence suggests the outbreak of cholera, which is endemic in Nepal, occurred when contaminated sewage was discharged from barracks into a watercourse. Cholera is spread through infected faeces. Once it enters the water supply, it is difficult to contain, especially in a country such as Haiti, which has almost no effective sewage disposal systems.
Cholera cases had previously been rare in Haiti. Survivors of the 2010 outbreak are filing a compensation claim against the UN in a New York court, demanding that billions of dollars in damages be paid to them and the relatives of those killed. The UN maintains it has legal immunity from such compensation claims and rejected demands from affected Haitians. The case is being pursued by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Medrano drew a distinction between the lawsuit and UN efforts to respond to the outbreak. "We cannot link these two things," he said. "One is a legal case with a different path that can take years … we have to respond now."
The first case in the current cholera epidemic was reported in October 2010; the outbreak has since become one of the worst in modern history. There were 65,000 cases last year, Medrano said. This year estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000.
"It all depends on the resources we get," he said. "If we get them, it could be 40,000; if not, it could be 80,000 – maybe more – new cases. It is a major threat for the whole Caribbean and Latin America region."
The 2010 earthquake wrought havoc in the already fragile country. Even before the disaster, basic sanitation coverage had decreased from 26% in 1990 to just 17% in 2008, with rural residents worst affected. Medrano said the main reason donors were not contributing more was because they did not consider the situation in Haiti to be an emergency.
As part of its anti-cholera effort, the Haitian government has set up a high-level committee chaired by the prime minister. It brings together key ministries – finance, health and public works – as well as donors and NGOs including the UN agency for children, the World Health Organisation and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Haiti has introduced a $2.2bn (£1.3bn) 10-year plan for the long-term eradication of cholera though the large-scale development of public health and sanitation services. The UN is appealing for $69m for the next two years as part of this effort. This year, it is asking for $40m, but so far the only funding committed is $6m from the UN central emergency response fund.
"This is vastly insufficient to meet urgent needs," the UN said. "The lack of available funds today risks the departure of cholera actors, which could compromise gains attained so far and lead to resurgence in suspected cases."
Medrano said the current dry season provided an opportunity for a sustained effort, including the vaccination of 500,000 people. Other measures include the supply of water pumps, mobile latrines, mobile health services, water purification tablets and the training of community workers to raise awareness of basic sanitation such as washing hands. But he warned that donors must act now to stem the epidemic.
"Last year was the lowest number of cases, which is a tribute to the Haitian government, but we are operating in an environment with less resources and a third fewer actors," he said. "People wrongly feel it's over, but this will take five to 10 years to stop. We have to respond now."Mark Tran
A riverside in Nebraska is a welcome refuelling stop for these elegant birds migrating from Mexico to their breeding grounds
Nebraska is all of a flutter. Over the coming month, more than half a million sandhill cranes will descend on the plains of the midwest where they'll take a breather en route to their breeding grounds in the north. Roosting on the Platte river at night, they take to the wing at sunrise and fill their stomachs with grain from the plentiful cornfields before returning to the banks as the sun sets replete with some much-needed calories for the onward journey.
It's a well-earned break. By the time they touch down in Nebraska, the cranes will have undertaken an epic journey from their wintering grounds in Mexico and the southern states, covering about 200-400 miles a day. And with the breeding grounds of some subspecies as far flung as Hudson Bay and even eastern Siberia, the journey for many is far from over.
Returning to "stage" along the same stretch of the river each year, the weary travellers are not only sure to find food and a spot to sleep, but also the chance to find a partner for life. With 80% of North America's sandhill cranes congregating along the river, the odds are good for the singletons; by the time the birds head off in early April, many will have found a mate.
Sporting grey plumage, white cheeks and a jaunty splash of red above their beaks, these handsome birds make for quite a spectacle as they strut their stuff along the river. And joining them are hundreds of enthusiasts who flock to the region every spring, armed with binoculars and cameras to catch sight of the phenomenon.
For those on the wrong side of the pond, there's no need to get in a flap at the thought of missing out – an online "crane cam", located at the Rowe Sanctuary on the edge of the Platte river, provides a remote glimpse of the action.
Just go to rowe.audubon.org/crane-cam to have a gander.Nicola Davis
There has been a big failure in communicating climate change to the public, but we have to deal with it – before it deals with us
What does the phrase anthropogenic forcing mean to you? Or a carbon bubble – would you be more likely to find one in your bath or in your pension fund? Is the greenhouse effect a better way to grow tomatoes? And what is the difference between global warming and climate change?
Understanding the language of climate science can feel like sitting an exam in an unfamiliar subject. For most scientific debates, the collision between the abstruse nature of expert discourse and our ordinary lives – a collision in which words are always the first casualty – does not matter too much. We can understand that smoking kills, even if we have not read the latest papers on how quickly a lung tumour metastasises compared with other cancers. We know that obesity is bad for us, even if experts are still exploring the addictive properties of sugar.
Not so with climate change. The question of whether we think of fossil fuels in terms of "global warming" or "climate calamity" (as some experts are calling it) goes to the heart of our response. Never has this been more in evidence, as the UN warns of using "weirdo words" on the subject, and politicians from the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey to the Tory Caroline Spelman have said we should listen to the science, and that global warming is a misnomer. There has been a massive failure in how to communicate climate issues to the public.
Part of the problem is that global warming sounds quite nice. A couple of degrees hotter in summer – we could be sitting out on our verandahs of an evening sipping Sauvignon Blanc from our own vineyards. Who wouldn't want that?
Global warming is both an entirely accurate term and utterly misleading. Current projections are for a rise of at least 2C by the end of the century, even if we take drastic action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, and a rise of as much as 5C or 6C if we carry on as usual. That may not sound a lot, but the difference in temperature between today and the last ice age was only about 5C; and the last time the UK was 5C warmer it was a swamp occupied by proto-hippos.
More importantly, the real effects of warming are not a gentle uniform increase in temperatures, but a move to far more extremes of weather. Meddling with the complex systems that govern our weather will bring disruption to the stability of climate that has aided the rise of modern civilisations. Warmer air holds more moisture than colder air. This means that areas of the world that are currently wet will become much wetter, but those that are already prone to drought will get drier. In the UK, this will mean more storms and floods of the kind that have devastated the country in the past two months. We are just beginning to understand that the melting of the Arctic ice cap may bring colder and wetter temperatures to Europe, even as they bring warmer weather to Greenland. Across the globe it will mean disruption to agriculture, a spread of disease and swaths of land becoming uninhabitable.
Key to this is the word "global" in global warming. The effects of the temperature rises will be felt across the world. Regions on continents as far apart as Australia and sub-Saharan Africa that currently just about support agriculture will get warmer still, making living there next to impossible. People who live there won't just stay where they are to starve; they will move, making global migration one of the most serious consequences of our climate meddling.
So here are a few exam questions. To make it easy, they're multiple choice:
1) Who do you think has got climate science right?
a) The vast majority of the world's experts who have produced ever more clear warnings on climate change for the past 20 years, based on physical evidence
b) The oil industry
c) The Tea Party
2) Who do you trust to tackle climate change?
a) Governments determined to squeeze the last few drops of economic advantage from their remaining fossil fuel reserves
b) The oil industry
c) Corporate advisers to the tobacco companies, drafted in to put a positive spin on this because they've been through it all before
By now you will have realised that this exam is a sham. The truth is we don't have multiple choices on climate change. We have one choice: we deal with it, or it deals with us. It is the one question we must answer correctly.Fiona Harvey
Athene Donald: Saturday is International Women’s Day. It’s a good time to consider what academic success means to women. The University of Cambridge is attempting, through a series of interviews, to find outAthene Donald
It took decades for HIV/Aids drugs to reach the world's poorest – history must not be repeated with hepatitis C treatments
A public health showdown is brewing over a virus that affects the lives of millions of people every year.
The face-off will involve activists on one side and pharmaceutical companies on the other. It will play out in the richest cities in North America and the poorest countries in Africa. The viral scourge at the centre of this brewing confrontation is spread through blood-to-blood contact, but is treatable with expensive medicines.
This scenario may remind some of the decades-long struggle to obtain access to life-saving medicines for HIV and Aids. But here we are talking about another public health threat: hepatitis C.
An estimated 150-180 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, and up to 500,000 die every year. The virus attacks the liver, yet the vast majority of people are unaware they are infected because the initial stages have no symptoms. It is the long-term effects that can be the most devastating: cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.
The showdown is over the cost and quality of medicines. Until recently, the only cure for hepatitis C involved an expensive combination of injections and tablets that lasted a year. In addition to having limited efficacy, this regimen caused serious side effects that deterred patients from finishing the full course. Now, new drugs are poised to enter the market that work more quickly, are more effective and may not require weekly injections. About 10 of these drugs have reached an advanced stage in clinical trials.
But battle lines are being drawn over the cost of the treatments. Two products were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration recently, including the first pill that does not require a complementary injection. The pill, sofosbuvir, costs $84,000 (£50,370) for a 12-week course. Echoing the concerns of HIV activists who demanded cheaper treatment, protesters point out that such prices will keep hepatitis C drugs beyond the reach of those in need.
The similarities with HIV and Aids do not stop there. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of death for people with HIV. Approximately 5.5 million people have both diseases, so just as people with HIV are living longer thanks to powerful medicines, some are being struck down by hepatitis C.
A decade ago, the high price of HIV treatment meant that access was limited in developing countries. Today, almost 10 million people in low- and middle-income countries are able to receive life-saving HIV medicines, thanks to generic competition slashing prices from $10,000 in the mid-1990s to just $140 a year. The success in providing HIV treatment to the world's poorest people can pave the way to ending hepatitis C.
Manufacturers of new hepatitis C medicines are likely to offer the poorest countries a less expensive version. But according to the Lancet medical journal, pharmaceutical firms will not offer discounts to middle-income countries they regard as emerging markets, where about 75% of people with hepatitis C live. For this reason, a diverse alliance of countries – Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Moldova and South Africa – sponsored a resolution at a recent meeting of the World Health Organisation, urging the international community to act quickly on hepatitis.
Governments, pharmaceuticals and civil society must work together. We need to learn from our experience with HIV and Aids and negotiate better prices from all manufacturers. Generic competition should be encouraged to bring prices down.
Pharmaceutical firms are starting to realise that they cannot leave people in poor countries behind. Initiatives such as the Medicines Patent Pool have allowed several major companies to share their patents, enabling affordable generic versions of their HIV medicines to be made. We need to see the same spirit of co-operation for hepatitis C.
We must also avoid a prolonged international showdown. Almost 20 years passed since the first HIV antiretrovirals emerged in the 1990s and the moment people in low-income countries began to get access. For the millions with hepatitis C – and for those who are unaware they have the disease – we must act faster.Philippe Douste-Blazy
Elaborate trench network was identified from old aerial photographs on land that is still owned by Ministry of Defence
A few suspiciously straight lines in a corner of a 1951 aerial photograph showing acres of featureless scrubby heath have led archaeologists to a lost first world war landscape.
The mock battlefield, used for training soldiers before they were shipped across the Channel to confront the real thing, is complete with zig-zags of frontline, communication and reserve trenches, the enemy's front line, terrifyingly visible less than 200 yards away – and, a little further on, a holiday camp in Gosport, Hampshire.
Browndown is still owned by the Ministry of Defence, but well used by local dog walkers, who knew there were humps, bumps and hollows into which a dog could annoyingly vanish – but had no idea what they were.
Rob Harper, conservation officer at Gosport council, was originally studying the photograph looking for second world war pillboxes, and had to wait several weeks after he spotted the telltale marks – until the head-high bracken and gorse died back – before he could investigate the site.
He thought it was likely the earthworks had been destroyed since the photograph was taken, since Google Earth just showed a confusing jumble of tracks. But when he finally put on his boots and scrambled around the land, he found himself in a perfectly preserved complex covering acres of land.
The front trench was jagged so that even if the Germans broke through, they didn't get a clear line of fire along its entire length, and the communication trenches were wider so more men could be rushed up to the front – or carried back injured. Although very overgrown, the distinctive profile of the trenches is instantly familiar from countless wartime photographs.
"I was completely astonished at what I was seeing," Harper said. "It was quite personal to me too – I have seven relatives buried in war graves on the front, who could well have trained here."
The historian Dan Snow, who is also president of the Council for British Archaeology, which is working to record the site with English Heritage, said: "This is where archaeology and history dovetail perfectly. In a way this is where we have to side with Michael Gove and against the Blackadder view of history.
"This is where you can see on the ground that it wasn't just about rounding up young men and hurling them at the machine guns: they were being incredibly well trained."
Here military tacticians were also trying to invent a new form of warfare, desperate to break the terrible stalemate that the trenches represented. But according to Wayne Cocroft, an English Heritage expert on wartime archaeology, although 20 other trench training sites have been recorded across Britain, many have been damaged by later development, and both the scale and the state of preservation of the Gosport complex is exceptional.
So far no records have been found of the complex, but thousands of soldiers were trained, shipped out, and repatriated to Gosport throughout the war. The peninsula on the Solent is spattered with centuries of military relics, including barracks blocks, airstrips, naval bases, supply depots and a submarine base, which is now a museum.
Graham Burgess, deputy leader of the council – who graciously said that if the MoD would like to present them the land, after checking first for live ordnance, the council would be pleased to accept it – was not surprised, as an ex-navy man, that the site had kept its secrets for so long.
"Gosport was full of things happening behind high walls and barbed wire fences that nobody outside knew anything about – still has a few. You could live next door to one of these places and not have any idea what was going on inside."
Stephen Fisher, one of the archaeologists recording the site, says digging the trenches would also have been training for the men, who would soon have to do it for real, and the little slit trenches scattered across the site, just big enough for one man to cower in, might represent their first efforts.
Volunteers including armed forces members based in the area, including many for whom the site has a personal poignancy since they have just returned safely from active service overseas, will be helping record the site in detail.
The Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage are combining to encourage many more volunteers for the Home Front Legacy – a campaign to identify and record vulnerable sites including camps, drill halls and factories. The information will loaded onto a database to create a map of the social history of wartime Britain.
Cocroft said that records were better for a Tudor house than a 1914 site: one site recently identified, in Newcastle under Lyme, was a hall used as a sewing circle where women gathered to make bandages and knit and sew garments for soldiers on the front.
"There were so many charities for Belgian and Serbian refugees – where were they based, where did they meet? There were factories taken over to make things like wooden boxes for shells. These things aren't recorded on any maps – only local knowledge can help us find them, before the memory is lost forever. The Great War affected everybody in Britain – down to the children who were asked to gather conkers from which a chemical used in making cordite could be extracted – but there is so much of its social history which was never written down anywhere."
Culture secretary Maria Miller said she hoped local and family history groups, schools and parish centenary projects would get involved in the project: "Discovery, preserving and identifying for the public sites and buildings from that era will help bring that part of our national history alive for generations to come."Maev Kennedy
Cast your shadowy or shady musical suggestions and bring to light a collection that will eclipse all others
Like a bad conscience or a faithful dog, they follow us everywhere. Each is unique to the individual. The brighter the light, the darker their hue. And like eyebrows, we take them for granted, but were they suddenly missing, the world would be very disturbing indeed. But what of shadows in song?
Are shadows always associated with darkness, negativity and mutability? Do they have to inspire fear? Why a shadow of doubt? Do people inevitably become a shadow of their former selves, or fall in someone else's shadow? Is life really a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets upon the stage, or just a plaything of light? Is the very substance of ambition merely the shadow of a dream? And do we really have to walk in the valley of the shadow of death? Not quite yet. First it's time to bring shadows out of the – well – darkness, and into the musical light. That's right – this week we're transforming the Readers Recommend bar into the Shady Lady.
Shadows are part of our definition. Without them everything would be a floating morass of light and colour. Drop shadows bring a third dimension to the 2D world. Shadows are, by definition, an obstruction to light, but they are its mutual guide. They constantly change shape, angle and intensity, like moods and emotions, which also gives them a strange beauty akin to music. Shapes of leaves dance across a meadow, clouds caress the landscape, and other such lovely things.
Shadow comes in gradients and colours. Fifty Shades of Grey? Hmm, perhaps that's for another topic. But the wavelengths of shade can certainly give pleasurably relief from searing heat.
Shadows, as our constant companions, have also been portrayed in literature as a silent form of daemon, not unlike those described in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. They could be seen to cast another side of us, our subconscious, our underlying self, stretching out with a different perspective and shape across life's daily glare.
The scale of shadows can also be immense. A shadow cast by Earth on the moon is a lunar eclipse. Conversely, a shadow cast by the moon on Earth is a solar eclipse. Meanwhile fog shadows are very odd – they confuse the imagination because they are perceived in three dimensions. And then there is the umbra, penumbra and antumbra, and when shadows overlap, the shadow blister effect.
This week's qualification across the vast spectrum of RR? Previously there has been topic of light but, conversely, not one yet about darkness, so this time please try to focus on shadows and shade specifically, as other forms of darkness could be a somewhat different beast lurking in a future topic. So please cast your shadow and shade nominations by last orders (11pm GMT) on Monday 10 March and our next esteemed guest guru, Fuel, will display them on his proverbial lightbox on Thursday 13 March.
To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:
• Tell us why it's a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song's words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.
• Listen to others people's suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you'd like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
• There's a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are "zedded", at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of "zedded", "donds" and other strange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the 'Spill blog.
The British Veterinary Association's campaign opens up a debate on much more than just animal welfare
If, after raising the issue for almost three decades, the British Veterinary Association was beginning to despair of ever securing front-page coverage for its campaign to ensure all animals are stunned before slaughter, it can breathe a sigh of relief. But probably a very short and shallow one.
Thanks to the interview its new head gave to the Times – picked up by the Today programme and countless others – the matter is now nothing if not high-profile. And, coming weeks after Denmark in effect outlawed kosher and halal slaughter, it is certainly topical, which may explain why the BVA's president-elect, John Blackwell, judged it a more alluring target than even the government's badger cull.
Blackwell's suggestion that the UK "may well" have to follow Denmark's example if British Jews and Muslims refuse to allow animals to be stunned before they are killed did not please the groups concerned. Nor did his assertion that cutting the throat of an animal without stunning it caused prolonged and unnecessary suffering.
"They will feel the cut," he said. "They will feel the massive injury of the tissues to the neck. They will perceive the aspiration of blood they will breathe in before they lose consciousness."
Although the BVA is a seasoned campaigner on the issue – and has also urged the government to label non-stunned meat to alert consumers to its origins – Blackwell's intervention has met with a swift and furious response from Jewish and Muslim groups, who argue their long-practised methods are completely humane. They have also hinted his comments could be used by far-right groups to stir up community tensions.
"He has made the extraordinarily misleading statement that what Jews do and Muslims do is to slit animals' throats and allow them to bleed to death," said Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "That is unbelievably misleading because he must know that the way the animal is killed is to cut its throat so as to bring about an immediate and irreversible loss of sensation and death."
Suggestions that the animal had its throat cut "and you just watch it while it bleeds to death", said Arkush, were pejorative, misleading and "could not be further from the truth".
Shimon Cohen, campaign director at Shechita UK – which campaigns for the right to carry out Jewish religious slaughter – described Blackwell's calls as "an extraordinary dereliction of duty" and asked why he had decided to focus on an issue that affected only a tiny minority of animals.
Although Shechita UK has no figures for the number of lambs and sheep slaughtered according to Jewish law in the UK each year, it estimates the number of cows to be 15,000-20,000 and the number of chickens to be around 1m. Figures from Compassion in World Farming suggest that 32m chickens and 70,000 cattle are slaughtered without being stunned in the UK each year.
"The fact is that religious slaughter is at least as humane as the industrialised methods used in conventional mechanical slaughter, which include electrocution, gassing, shooting, trapping, drowning and clubbing," said Cohen. His views were echoed by Arkush, who said that 9% of animals in the UK were mis-stunned, causing them pain and distress before slaughter, adding that European veterinary bodies put the figure at around 31%.
"Let's call it 9%: in this country, the total number of animals who suffer mis-stunning exceeds the whole number of animals killed for the kosher market by a factor of 10," he said. "If you've got 10 times as many animals mis-stunned as you have kosher, surely you should be attacking that?"
Arkush also said he feared that the Danish government had introduced the ban as a reaction to increasing public discontent over Muslim immigration.
"This was a political move; a populist move because there has in fact been no shechita in Denmark for 10 years because the community there is too minuscule and it wouldn't be economic," he said. "Why pass a law about it? Denmark was not done out of consideration for animal welfare but out of consideration for popular, anti-immigration sentiment."
Dr Shuja Shafi, the deputy secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he was disappointed that the issue of religious slaughter had been brought up yet again. "Halal is a humane method; it's a clean, clear method and has got rules and regulations about how it's carried out," he said. "Stunning has got lots of problems in itself … and if it's not done properly, actually animals are a lot worse off."
He also said that focusing on minority religious practices "could give ammunition" to the far right, which already uses halal slaughter as a means to try to attack the Muslim community. "People should be more responsible in how they tackle this. It's going to cause confusion and will be used by elements to have a negative effect." Blackwell told the Guardian that while a ban "may well be the end point", he would prefer to get all the groups involved together so that they could discuss the scientific evidence on stunning. He admitted that human and operator error would inevitably lead to some mis-stunning but said he did not accept that it was as common as had been suggested.
"I've heard talk today of anything between 9% and 31%, and I just don't buy that," he said. "There are veterinary surgeons working continuously in plants, monitoring the welfare aspects of the animal from the moment it arrives … to the moment it's killed."
Asked why he had chosen to raise the issue of religious slaughter rather than comment on intensive farming or the badger cull, he said: "This isn't a single-policy issue; it's part of a portfolio of issues. Welfare is very important, if not the most important thing, to veterinary surgeons. It's almost our raison d'être to try to improve welfare, and as far as animal production goes, we're concerned with the welfare from the birth of the animal till its final slaughter."
Blackwell also said that while the BVA acknowledged the sensitive nature of the debate, it was not seeking to stir up a religious or political debate on the issue of slaughter.
"We're just trying to take the moral high ground on behalf of the animal," he said. "It's not about trying to clamp down on people's very, very well-held beliefs; it's about moving forward and looking at the issues and seeing that if we can't have a ban, then how can we fine-tune it so the welfare of the animals is not compromised at slaughter?"
Blackwell's calls won the support of Compassion in World Farming, which said stunning worked and was merciful.
"In the UK, 1.4m sheep and goats, 32m chickens and 70,000 cattle are slaughtered without being stunned each year," said its chief policy adviser. "There is clear scientific evidence which shows that animals suffer when they are slaughtered without being stunned."
The response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was rather more guarded. "We respect the rights of religious communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious beliefs," said a spokeswoman. "There are strict laws in place to ensure welfare standards are met during slaughter."Sam Jones
We strongly agree with many of the points George Monbiot makes in response to the recent floods (The benefit dependency that the government loves, 4 March). George notes that the changes he wants to see will lead to a reduction in production. He is right that this could helpfully lead to less grain and protein being wastefully fed to farm animals, many of which spend their entire lives shut up indoors, and less grain being produced for biofuels on land which should be producing food for people. His argument is greatly strengthened by the overwhelming need to change our diets in the face of the rising tide of ill-health linked to over-consumption and obesity, costing the NHS over £5bn annually. UK farming could easily support healthy diets, with more fruit and vegetables, and less meat and dairy, and with a focus on grass-fed meat rather than industrial chicken and pork.
George argues against the almost unconditional payments made to farmers under pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy, which is why we and others have long argued that all payments to farmers should be made under pillar 2, where payments can be linked to genuine benefits which farmers deliver for society, like more wildlife and, in other EU countries, less greenhouse gas emissions and more jobs. George is right to castigate the damaging impacts that a crop like maize can have, but not all farming is the same, and we would argue that organic farming, using the sun's energy rather than fossil fuels to provide fertility, with grass leys needed on all farms, and with deeper and denser rooted crops, ensures that soils can absorb and hold more water in times of heavy rain. By holding water, soils on organic farms also provide resilience against what will probably be the next climatic shock to hit the UK – another "exceptional, one in 100 years" drought like the one we suffered in 2011.
Policy director, Soil Association
• In his ongoing crusade to rewild the countryside at the expense of UK agriculture, George Monbiot again seems determined to ignore key facts. He continues to repeat the line about maize growers being entirely exempt from soil protection rules even though it isn't true. He insists on portraying farmers as wanton destroyers of the soil when their livelihoods (and the country's food production capabilities) rely on them maintaining fertile and productive soils.
As for his statements about pesticides, no product is certified for use without undergoing extensive trial evaluations of environmental risk and these registrations undergo regular review. Metaldehyde, which Mr Monbiot mentions, is critical to UK crop production and is the subject of ongoing registration review in the UK as well as a rigorous and targeted stewardship campaign supported by manufacturers, water companies, farmers and regulators to find smart solutions to ensure it doesn't enter water. As the population grows we have to find ways to produce more food while impacting less on the environment. How we achieve this is the debate that attention should be focused on.
Dr Andrew Clark
Head of policy services, NFU
• The government spends £108.9bn a year on the NHS, yet only £3.2bn on agriculture. Disease is often a consequence of poor diet. Since 1970, the supermarkets have come to control farm incomes. Most farms are now dependent on subsidy. The exceptions are those who have paid off their mortgages, and can afford to farm more sensitively. Some post-mortgage farmers own huge estates, some own just a few acres. However, most independent farmers are above retiring age and their children, faced with dire economics and oppressive regulation, do not want to inherit. It's likely that up to 60 % of UK farm land will be sold in the next decade and most will be bought by investment companies, whose shareholders will demand maximum profit until the ecosystem collapses.
Monbiot claims inspections happen "once every 100 years" but our experience was of three inspections a year. The advertised fines would have bankrupted us. But we are also monitored by satellite, and from aircraft. Monbiot's agri-environment schemes are greenwashing. No official surveys are undertaken before the schemes start, the government ignores farm species lists, and imposes a standard management plan regardless of its affect on existing rarities. No ecological surveys are conducted during or after the scheme, but subcontractors are sent to ensure that rules are being obeyed, effectively ensuring the local extinction of rarities that the government had not considered worth enquiring about.
St Clears, Carmarthenshire
• I congratulate George Monbiot on his attack on modern farming practices. We witness these in our valley, which spreads west towards Guildford from Dorking. In our village there is a stream which runs continuously throughout the year, even in times of drought. It's catchment area is primarily Leith Hill and the water is generally clear, no matter how hard the rain is falling, until it meets the arable farming land in the base of the valley. At that point it is joined by water from the deep drainage ditches from the fields which is a yellowy brown sludgy mess due to the run off. As Monbiot has consistently pointed out, this practice of over-draining what are often bare fields not only leads to flooding but is in blatant disregard of the necessary conservation of the soil that farms rely on for their, and our, long-term future.
• Given the finding that diets rich in animal protein may be as harmful to health as smoking (Report, 5 March), the chancellor must give serious consideration to our suggestion of a tax on meat, eggs and dairy products. We can get all the nutrients that we need (without the saturated fat and cholesterol) from healthy vegan foods. The government can prolong the lives of millions of people, not to mention save those of animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
New WHO guidelines must be translated into something meaningful to consumers, says director of Action on Sugar
One Starbucks caramel frappuccino with skimmed milk and whipped cream contains nearly twice as much sugar as the World Health Organisation says is the advisable daily intake, and a can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi has one and a half times the amount, but campaigners worry that the message about cutting down on sugar is insufficiently clear.
In a draft updated guideline on sugar consumption, WHO recommended on Wednesday that no more than 10% of our calories should come from sugar, but suggested less than 5% would be preferable.
For an average adult consuming 2,000 calories a day, that equates to 50g of sugar – or 12 teaspoons – at the higher limit and 25g – six teaspoons – at the lower limit.
A child, whose calorie intake is much lower, would reach the limit even faster.
The Starbucks caramel frappuccino contains more than 44g of sugar – 11 teaspoons – which is considerably above the lower limit and almost at the upper limit, suggesting that it could be unwise to drink one at all.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi in 330ml cans have nine teaspoons of sugar, a 51g Mars bar has eight teaspoons and a Muller Crunch Corner strawberry shortcake yoghurt six teaspoons. There is added sugar in many savoury dishes, including pasta sauce and soup, to improve taste and texture.
Aseem Malhotra, cardiologist and science director of the pressure group Action on Sugar, which produced the table of foods with added sugars at its launch in January, said most people would find it hard to calculate how much sugar they are consuming, and are not helped by labels.
Malhotra points out that many manufacturers add together the WHO recommendation of 10% of added sugars and a further 10% of intrinsic sugars – those from fruit and vegetables, which were the subject of a separate nutritional recommendation by the WHO in 2003 to try to persuade people to eat more of them. As a result, Coca-Cola can say that the 35g of sugar in a 330ml can is 39% of an adult's guideline daily recommended amount of total sugars, even though it contains only added sugar.
"This is extremely misleading," said Malhotra. "I agree with the WHO recommendation, but it has to be translated into something meaningful for the consumer."
Public Health England responded to the WHO announcement by accepting the 10% limit recommendation. It went further, adding that it "will carefully consider the suggestion that a further reduction of sugar to below 5% of total energy intake per day would have additional benefits." The UK already has a 10% limit guideline. Surveys suggest that adults in England consume 11.6% of their calories as sugar and children 15.2%.
The WHO recommendation is a response to the growing obesity epidemic, which is a cause of increased heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and also tooth decay.
But the food and drink industry appeared to be relaxed over the guidelines. Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science and health at the Food and Drink Federation, said: "The main recommendation in the draft guidance … supports the existing UK policy on sugars, that intake of free sugars should not exceed 10% of total energy. Where weight gain is referenced in the draft guidance, this too supports current UK government policy and industry action to reduce calories in the diet.
"Excess calories, whether from fat, sugars or other nutrients, can result in weight gain, which is why UK food and drink producers are working to reduce calories in their products, many doing so under the UK government's Responsibility Deal calorie reduction pledge." The federation pointed out that the WHO said there was greater uncertainty about the science underpinning a 5% limit.
Religious slaughter is at least as humane as conventional mechanical slaughter. The British Veterinary Association should look elsewhere
The head of the British Veterinary Association has said that religious slaughter methods need to change to prevent animal suffering. It is unfortunate that the BVA and other animal welfare organisations in the UK tend to view religious slaughter as incompatible with humaneness; quite the contrary is true – compassion and animal welfare stand at the centre of the entire process.
Shechita and zabiha are not words commonly known by the public, but to Jewish and Muslim communities they are synonymous with sincerely held, religiously mandated care for animals. They refer to the Jewish and Muslim humane methods of slaughter of animals for food, and the body of religious law in which they are contained talks not only about the last two seconds of an animal's life, but about its treatment from birth.
There is much difference between shechita and zabiha, but both quickly dispatch the animal by severing the structures at the front of the neck – the trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins. When carried out by a trained practitioner, the speed and precision of the incision ensures the lack of stimulation of the severed structures and results in the immediate loss of consciousness; blood flow to the brain is completely halted. In addition, blood empties rapidly from the brain.
Irreversible cessation of consciousness and insensibility to pain are achieved, providing the most effective stun. There is no delay between stun and subsequent death, so the animal cannot regain consciousness – as can happen with conventional slaughter methods.
Traditional British methods of stunning by use of a captive bolt, gassing or electrocution (by electrified pincers for larger animals, or a water bath with an electric current running through it for poultry) paralyse the animal, and it is unable to display outward signs of feeling pain. However, it is impossible to know whether the animal is feeling pain or not.
There is ample scientific evidence that religious slaughter is at least as humane as conventional mechanical slaughter. Research in the UK and the US, including by Dr Temple Grandin – one of the authorities on animal welfare – have supported this view. By contrast, many of the studies that suggest that religious slaughter causes unnecessary pain have been agenda-driven and methodologically flawed, stretching data in a distinctly unscientific fashion to unsupported conclusions.
It is remarkable therefore that religious slaughter can generate such a huge amount of publicity and media scaremongering when in fact the number of animals affected is extremely low. Halal and kosher meat are responsible for a fraction of the cattle slaughtered in the UK.
So even if one believes, despite the lack of scientific consensus, that religious slaughter is cruel, it is deeply troubling that the BVA has chosen to focus its attention on religious slaughter rather than other, far more pressing animal welfare issues. For example, between 2009 and 2011 the campaign group Animal Aid filmed secretly and found evidence of unspeakable cruelty and illegal activity in eight of nine randomly chosenBritish slaughterhouses: animals were kicked, slapped, stamped on, and even burned with cigarettes. We are yet to hear of a campaign by the BVA to root out this kind of cruelty.
Similarly, the European Food Safety authority found in 2004 that the failure rate for the much-trumpeted penetrating captive bolt stunning in conventional mechanical slaughter may be as high as 6.6%, and up to 31% for non-penetrating captive bolt and electric stunning. This equates to millions of animals each year that experience incredible suffering. But the BVA has not mounted a campaign on this.
There will always be a discussion about what can be learned from scientific evidence, and the Jewish and Muslim communities stand ready to debate in any constructive forum. But let us not pretend that religious slaughter represents a key battleground for animal welfare in this country – to do so is disingenuous in the extreme.Shuja ShafiJonathan Arkush
Nasa's Hubble telescope caught asteroid P/2013 R3 splintering into ten pieces over three months
The break up of an asteroid has been captured on film for the first time.
Experts pictured the P/2013 R3 asteroid breaking into ten pieces using Nasa's Hubble space telescope.
Publishing details in Astrophysical Journal Letters, they said that although fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, nothing resembling this type of breakup has been observed before in the asteroid belt.
The pictures show the asteroid splitting up into smaller fragments between October last year and mid-January.
The four largest are up to 200 yards in radius, the astronomers said.
They said the asteroid's debris will provide a "rich source of meteoroids" in the future. While most will plunge into the sun, a small fraction may one day enter the Earth's atmosphere as meteors.
"Seeing this rock fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," said Professor David Jewitt, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Fragments were seen drifting away from each other at about one mile an hour.
The astronomers said the asteroid began coming apart early last year, but new pieces continue to emerge.
They said it was unlikely that the asteroid is breaking up because of a collision with another, because that would have caused an "instantaneous and violent" break up.
They said that the break up is also unlikely to have been caused by interior ices warming and vapourising because it is too cold – being nearly 300 million miles from the sun.
Professor Jewitt, who led the astronomical forensics investigation into the asteroid, said that it could have disintegrated due to a "subtle effect of sunlight".
He said that this can cause the rate of rotation to increase slightly, which causes the asteroid's component pieces to gently pull apart due to "centrifugal force".
This type of disruption has been discussed by experts for several years but has never been reliably observed.