James Erlichman obituary

Consumer journalist, broadcaster and writer at the forefront of reporting Britain’s BSE food crisis

James Erlichman, who has died after a short and sudden illness aged 69, was a consumer journalist, broadcaster and writer at the forefront of reporting Britain’s devastating BSE food crisis. His work brought home uncomfortable truths about products used by millions.

When James became consumer correspondent of the Guardian in 1985, the biggest food scandal of recent British history was about to land. For years cows had been fed on bone meal containing the remains of other cattle. That led to a brain disease known as BSE, so called mad cow disease. James’ coverage marked a turning point in attitudes to the crisis and the public’s trust in mass production of food.

His article A Cow Disease to Beef About, published on 11 July 1988, accused the Ministry of Agriculture of being a “penny pinching”, incompetent organisation for its lack of regulation on animal feeds. It was later acknowledged as the first article in Britain to expose government culpability. James went on to trace people suffering the human version of the disease, CJD, and his drive to expose the scandal meant the Guardian ran more than twice as many articles on BSE as any other quality paper in the UK.

In 1996, James took his bold style of journalism into broadcasting, working first on Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours and later joining BBC1. In 1997 he became a presenter of the Channel 4 food series Feast. In December that year, he discovered that beef on the bone was about to be banned, leading to questions from MPs in the Commons about how he had found out before them. He did it by building the confidence of contacts, who very often became his friends for life. The true identity of his informant, known internally at the BBC as the “meat man”, has been taken to his grave.

James always brought his own ethical code to journalism, and on one occasion his editor’s insistence that he accept a free trip from an oil firm backfired badly. Instead of writing an article about the new product on show, he filed a story about lavish free trips distorting the news agenda in favour of wealthy companies.

Born in New York, James first came to Britain on an educational exchange and fell in love with what he saw as greater social equality in the UK. After a degree at Brown University in Rhode Island, he returned to Britain to study history at Cambridge University. Then he went into journalism at the Kent Messenger newspaper and arrived at the Guardian in 1979.

His father, Irvine, was a cardiologist; his mother, Grace (nee Rentschler), who came from a poor Pennsylvanian Dutch background, taught him the value of good nutrition. His energy and commitment for getting to the truth was rooted in childhood tragedy.

James’s sister, Pamela Jane, died after being vaccinated against polio when she was seven and he a year younger. If James had not had a cold, he too would have been given an injection from the same faulty batch, it is thought. Losing his only sibling was a shattering blow that taught James that officials and companies cannot always be trusted with the health and welfare of others.

James’s first book, Gluttons for Punishment, was published by Penguin in 1986 and contains some of the earliest and clearest warnings on antibiotic resistance. He analysed how intensive farming production required low-dose antibiotics to be continually fed to livestock, creating “evolutionary pressure” on bacteria to create super-strains.

At the time his views were often brushed off as a “scare story”, yet more than three decades later the UK’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies is using the same concerns to warn of a “post-antibiotic apocalypse”. His book also raised the alarm on pesticide and hormone residues left in our food, themes that increasingly became the cornerstones of the organic food movement.

In Addicted to Food (2013), James argued that what we eat has become our fourth addiction after tobacco, drugs and alcohol. He attacked the modern food industry for so eagerly exploiting it. He explained that drug or booze addicts can walk away from their vice, but food junkies still need to eat every day. James showed a link between excessive weight gain and income, with unskilled workers suffering obesity far more than the professional classes. In modern Britain, many of the cheapest foods are the worst for you, and eating healthily can be expensive.

In 2007, James moved from London to Worcester to live with his partner Penny Perrett, and in 2010 he gained a PhD in food policy from Sussex University. His voluntary work helping children with their reading at a local school and cooking for the homeless gave him as much satisfaction as even his greatest journalistic scoops.

James continued to challenge accepted consensus, especially when it came to food. Only a week before his death, he had become concerned that when a well known brand of meat pie was donated to the local food bank it could be counted as a “meat product”. He argued that since the pies contain less than 20% meat (the label states 10% beef, 8% pork kidney), clients were getting a poor deal and the product should be re-categorised.

He is survived by Penny and by two children, Hannah and Matthew, from his marriage to Susan Littledale, which ended in divorce.

• James Rentschler Erlichman, journalist, born 20 January 1949; died 6 December 2018


Chris Choi

The GuardianTramp

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