More food scares expected as testing methods improve, conference hears

Ireland not good at learning lesssons, food safety expert says


will be more chemical-related food scares as testing methods improve, Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at UCD, has said. He was speaking at the annual conference of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), the umbrella group for the State's 1,000 co-operatives and marts, yesterday.

Prof Wall said there was a time when science could detect chemicals and taint in milk at one part per billion. "Now it's one part per trillion," he said. "So basically as we get down to lower and lower levels, there's no doubt . . . that we are going to see more and more chemical-related scares." He said the dioxin scare involving Irish pork products in 2008 was a spectacular own goal. "That was a close call," he said. If some of the dioxin-contaminated feed had been given to dairy cows, it would have ruined the reputation of the Irish dairy sector. "If we had to recall infant formula, or Baileys or Kerrygold, we wouldn't be having this meeting now," he said. "We have to learn the lessons from that but in Ireland we're not good at learning lessons."

Illegal sales
Prof Wall pointed to the recent news that some farmers in this State were selling milk illegally in Northern Ireland because they had produced more than their annual quotas. "It's being moved in containers that are not food-grade. This is a recipe for another scare," he said.

All it would take would be a chemical taint in one container “and the wheels will come off . . . someone is selling the milk and someone is buying the milk and that has to be stopped”.

He said many food scares related to animal feed and a lot of the feed used in Ireland was globally sourced. "So basically the health of our sector is often dependent on controls and operations in another jurisdiction completely," he said. "All of the vitamins and minerals that are currently being used in animal rations in the EU are coming from China."

Meat crisis
If the industry shared results and information, the horse meat crisis might never have happened, he said. The Department of Agriculture's investigation into the horse meat crisis found that Naas-based QK Meats had found horse meat in a consignment of Polish-labelled beef trimmings more than six months before the scandal erupted but it did not inform the authorities. "If they had to have shared that with people, we could have avoided that whole scandal," he said.

ICOS chief executive Séamus O'Donohoe said the co-operative dairy and food industry must have risk management strategies in place for raw materials, processes and management behaviour.

“We have a very considerable level of preparedness in place,” he said. “This now needs to be further examined and strengthened as we look to expand the profile of Irish dairy and food on world markets when quotas are abolished from 2015 onwards.”

Dairy giants
Meanwhile, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said he believed it was time for a debate on the consolidation of co-ops, if they were to compete with dairy giants such as Fonterra in New Zealand.

He said it seemed to be a controversial issue but it was a conversation that must be had. “I do think we need to constantly ask ourselves the question . . . are we self-critical in terms of ensuring that we have the most efficient production models that can support and guarantee farmers’ incomes or in some cases, are we simply too small on our own?”

Earlier, Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon said her agency had supported more than 30 projects in the food industry this year, at a cost of more than €350 million. "It is the most significant area of investment for Enterprise Ireland," she said.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times