According to Scared to Death, the modern "scare phenomenon" started in the US in the 1970s and first reared its head in Britain in the 80s following a raft of food poisoning incidents. The most memorable scare was prompted by Edwina Currie's "terrible blunder" over salmonella.

But the powder keg was primed by a scientist from the Public Health Laboratory Service who realised there was a high incidence of salmonella in broiler chickens, assumed egg-laying chickens were passing the disease into eggs they laid and then alerted the media.

"Scares may begin with a genuine problem, but then scientists put two things together, despite the fact the statistics don't justify it," says Booker. "An excited media then whip up a storm and don't check facts, causing mass hysteria, and finally the government creates the real damage by introducing new regulations."

This departure from sound science and good sense subsequently marked the BSE crisis and almost all the food scares that have followed.