Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dioxin-Contaminated Pork From Ireland: Update #4

What's Being Done?
December 10, 2008

As the Republic of Ireland continues its investigation into dioxin contamination, its international customers are taking their own actions to protect local consumers. Following is a summary of what has been learned in the past 24 hours, and what is being done.

Republic of Ireland
After learning that dioxin-contaminated feed had been supplied to 45 cattle farms in the Irish Republic, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF) put a hold on cattle from all 45 farms and began to test each herd for non-dioxin like PCBs – a test used as a preliminary screen for dioxin. Eight of the first 11 herds tested were completely clean. The other three herds were contaminated with low levels of non-dioxin like PCBs – far lower than the quantities found in samples of pork. 

DAFF is continuing to screen the remaining 34 herds of cattle, but is optimistic that most will prove to be cleared. And the Chief Veterinary Officer is scheduled to meet with his EU colleagues today to brief them on the status of Irish beef and live cattle, and assure them of its safety.

Investigators may have a handle on how dioxins entered the animal feed. The Irish EPA has determined that the oil used in a burner to generate heat in order to process waste food into animal feed was "inappropriate" and not approved for that use. Millstream Recycling, the feed processor, insists that it purchased its oil only from "legitimate sources" in the Republic of Ireland. 

The search for the source of the offending oil seems to be leading to a company in County Tyrone, which stores or incinerates waste oil from electricity transformers under license. It's unclear, as yet, how that oil might have found its way to Millstream Recycling – or how dioxins generated by heating the oil might have traveled into the animal feed.

The United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland)
Nine cattle farms in Northern Ireland were supplied with feed from Millstream Recycling. The UK Food Standards Agency is conducting tests on the affected herds. Pending results of those tests – and of the concurrent tests being carried out by the Republic of Ireland – FSA has put a hold on livestock and carcasses from the affected herds in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

FSA also has posted a list of meat processors in Ireland and Northern Ireland that received potentially contaminated pork. Investigations are still underway to determine which of the Northern Ireland processors received the contaminated pork. And, as part of its recall of Irish pork products, FSA has provided consumers with a list of UK companies (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) that received pork from one or more of the listed meat processors.

The government has announced a ban on pork and pork products from Ireland as a result of the dioxin contamination. It's unknown how much of the meat has entered Russia.

People's Republic of China
The importation of all pork products and animal feeds from the Republic of Ireland has been suspended. The government has alerted its inspectors to recall the more than 2,000 tons of Irish pork that was imported into China since September 1st.

After being alerted to the dioxin contamination problem, Findus, a Swedish food company, announced its own recall of food products that might contain Irish pork. Servera, a food wholesaler and customer of Findus, determined that it may have supplied recalled Findus products to as many as 152 of its customers, including several schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Servera is in the process of tracking the affected products – Swedish meatballs and "Biff Lindstrom – to their destinations.

Champion has announced a recall of ready-to-eat hamburgers that contain Irish pork. A press release will follow. Belgium is monitoring the situation regarding possible dioxin contamination of Irish beef.

European Union
The European Food Safety Authority has completed a risk assessment, and has concluded that the risk to human health posed by the levels of dioxin found in Irish pork is low, based on the limited time period during which exposure may have occurred. Specifically, EFSA reported:

  • "In the most likely scenario, if someone ate an average amount of Irish pork each day throughout the period of the incident (90 days), 10% of which was contaminated at the highest recorded concentration of dioxins[1], the body burden[2] would increase by approximately 10%. EFSA considers this increase to be of no concern for this single event." 
  • "In a very extreme case, if someone ate a large amount of Irish pork each day throughout the period of the incident (90 days), 100% of which was contaminated at the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, EFSA concludes that the safety margin embedded in the tolerable weekly intake (TWI [3]) would be considerably undermined. Given that the TWI has a 10-fold built in safety margin, EFSA considers that this unlikely scenario would reduce protection, but not necessarily lead to adverse health effects."

What does this mean for consumers? The UK Food Standards Agency, referencing this assessment, advises consumers that composite products containing pork – sausage rolls, pork pies, pizzas, and the like – are safe to eat. And consumers who may have eaten Irish pork since September 1st need not worry about their health. The amount of dioxin to which they may have been exposed, even in a worst-case scenario, is within the EU's  "tolerable weekly intake" for the contaminant.

We would add one more consideration. Dioxin accumulates in fat. Eating lean cuts of pork, or trimming off excess fat and only eating the lean meat, greatly reduces the risk of exposure to dioxins.

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