Pork recall: Q&A


Why have Irish pork and bacon products been recalled? :In routine, random testing carried out by Department of Agriculture monitors on November 19th, a number of slaughtered pigs were found to have high levels of potentially harmful and illegal non-dioxin like PCBs. Samples sent to the UK for analysis came back on Saturday afternoon and confirmed the presence of up to 200 times the legal limit for dioxins in some meat samples.

PCBs? Dioxins? What are they?

The production and use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was discontinued in the 1980s but substantial amounts remain in electrical equipment, plastic products, and building materials. They are stored in fat tissue and take a long time to leave the body. Dioxins are naturally occurring organic compounds released into the atmosphere from fires and other forms of combustion. Both can accumulate in the fat of animal or in plant tissue. While they are mostly found in insignificant levels, a small number are highly toxic and can cause a range of ailments from cancer to skin diseases and damage to the reproductive and immune systems.

How did the dioxins get into the food?

The source of the contamination is animal feed from an identified supplier. The feed was distributed to a number of pig farms which have also been identified – restrictions were placed on these nine farms in the middle of last week. The contaminated pig feed was supplied to less than ten per cent of the State's farms.

If only a small number of farms were affected by the toxins, why the total recall?

There are around 400 pig farms in the Republic but as all pigs are slaughtered and processed in a very small number of registered processing plants and slaughter houses it is virtually impossible to distinguish between contaminated products and those which are free of contamination so it all has to go.

I've eaten a lot of pork in recent months, should I be concerned?

Almost certainly not. While there is evidence indicating that exposure to high levels of dioxins - such as you might find after a chemical spill or industrial accident – can be carcinogenic, the FSAI was quick to assure consumers last night that there is no risk of immediate illness. It is prolonged high level exposure over a long period that gives cause for concern and the FSAI says there is no need for anyone to seek medical advice. The State's Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said anyone who had eaten pig meat did not need to seek medical help. He said that toxins were only dangerous if a person is exposed to it over a long period of time. “The period in question here is much shorter,” he said. Such effects should not arise as the exposure has been identified at an early stage.”

Could I have been exposed to dioxins?

We are all exposed to dioxins at low levels every day from car emissions, cigarette smoke and fires. The FSAI says that the general exposure of consumers in Ireland is low when compared to other European countries and well below the maximum intake established by international risk assessment bodies.

Are other meat products affected?

According to the FSAI, while the feed was also sent to a over 30 beef farms, samples of other meats have not tested positive for dioxins and no other recall has been announced.

I have just bought a giant Christmas ham that is unopened in my fridge do I have to destroy it?

Yes. The FSAI is advising all consumers to destroy all pork products bought after September 1st.

Will I be out of pocket as a result of the recall?

Consumers do have the option of returning any pork products to the point of sale. The onus is always on manufacturers and their distributors to sell products which are safe. If they believe – or are told, as in this case – that a product is potentially hazardous they are legally obliged to take the necessary steps to protect their customers. In addition, under consumer law, you are also entitled to a refund from the shop if you buy a defective product – and all pork currently on Irish shelves has been deemed defective.

Will it be long before Irish pork is back on the shelves?

The 390 pig producers who were not supplied with the contaminated feed are hoping to have fresh pig meat available within a matter of days.

Has this type of recall happened elsewhere?

Yes. In 1998 dioxin-contaminated citrus pulp from Brazil was used in feed for dairy animals in France which led to significant quantities of milk being contaminated. A year later in Belgium, dioxin laden machine oil contaminated animal feed entered the food chain affecting poultry, eggs, red meat and milk and causing a major food crisis.

What are the likely consequences for the sector?

It is hard at this early stage to assess the full consequences of the recall but they are likely to be very severe. The recall itself is likely to cost tens of millions of euro but the damage to the pig meat industry at home and abroad could be even more significant. Within 12 hours of the recall being announced, the story was running on in excess of 400 news websites all over the world, from New Zealand to California.