On 6 December 2008 the Irish Government announced that levels of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exceeding the maximum permitted levels had been found in animal feed and pork fat in the Republic of Ireland.
Maximum levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in meat, fish, eggs, milk and other foods have been set by the European Commission. These are set at a very low level in order to reduce consumer exposure as much as possible. Levels of dioxins found in pork fat from the Republic of Ireland were reported to be 80 to 200 times greater than the permitted maximum levels.
The Irish Government advised that it was recalling all pork and pork products made in the Republic of Ireland since 1 September 2008.
Pork derived from pigs reared, slaughtered and processed in Northern Ireland is not affected by this incident. However, 13 meat processing plants in Northern Ireland had received pork from the Republic of Ireland.
On the basis of this information, the Food Standards Agency issued precautionary advice to consumers not to eat pork or pork products, such as sausages, bacon, salami and ham, labelled as being from the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
During the course of last week, additional information became available on which farms in the Republic of Ireland had received contaminated feed. This enabled food retailers and manufacturers to trace their supplies of pork and identify if it has been affected. The current position is that in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe shops, manufacturers and caterers that can trace the origin of any pork directly to a farm that is unaffected by contaminated feed are able to continue selling their products. The food businesses will need to be able to demonstrate to local authorities that any pork on sale is unaffected.
Food businesses are being advised to test products such as pork pies and sausages that contain more than 20 per cent.of Irish pork from affected farms to make sure that they do not contain illegal levels of dioxins. Products that contain less than 20 per cent. of Irish pork do not have to be tested or withdrawn from sale.
From the information that we have at this time we consider the risk to consumers from this incident to have been very low. Consumers have been advised not to worry if they think they may have eaten affected products. The Food Standards Agency’s assessment is that health effects are likely only if people are exposed to relatively high levels of this contaminant for long periods; that will not have occurred as a result of this incident.
This view has been supported by the assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They have advised that if someone ate Irish pork of which 10 per cent. was affected by the contamination, each day throughout the past 90 days, the amount of chemicals that accumulate in the body would increase by approximately 10 per cent. EFSA considers this increase to be of no concern for this event lasting approximately three months. In the UK, the level of exposure will be much lower because most pork on the market is not from Ireland.
It has also been confirmed that the contaminated feed has been supplied to cattle farms in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Irish Government has concluded on the basis of its testing of affected cattle that there is no public health risk associated with beef.
Samples are being taken from carcasses in Northern Ireland and the results will determine the course of action to be taken. The Food Standards Agency is following the European Commission’s advised approach that neither pigs nor cattle should be cleared solely on the basis of PCB marker results but should await full dioxin test results.
Eight affected cattle herds in Northern Ireland are currently under restrictions. Cattle and carcasses from these herds will remain restricted and will not enter the food chain until the Food Standards Agency and the European Commission are fully satisfied that, from the results, the cattle from these herds are fit to eat. Investigations are continuing to establish whether any potentially affected beef had entered the market prior to restrictions being put in place. Farmers and the food industry are acting responsibly and fully co-operating with the authorities.