Porkie pies about the dioxin threat

The recall of Irish pork products exposes the opportunism and hysteria of Ireland and Britain’s food standards bodies.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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If there’s no problem that panicked authorities cannot turn into a crisis, then there’s no crisis that indecision cannot exacerbate.

So it was on Saturday afternoon that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) discovered it had just such a problem on its hands. Dioxins – the synthesis of chlorinated organic compounds formed, in this case, as a by-product of a manufacturing process – had been found at 80 to 200 times the safe ‘maximum level’ in Irish pork products. This sounds a lot, but, as countless experts have stated, the risk to the public is virtually nil. Not only that, the culprit – an oil used by a particular animal feed producer in a machine used to dry animal feed – affected just 49 out of the Irish Republic’s 400 pig farms. And of the nine linked in Northern Ireland, none currently, it has since emerged, have any pigs.

Such facts were not about to inhibit the FSAI, however. Any pork product, it decided – be it bacon, ham, sausages, white pudding or certain pizzas produced since 1 September – was to be recalled and destroyed. Whatever the response lacked in good sense it more than made up for in haste. And with the cost to the Republic’s pig industry likely to be in the region of €100million, it is a decision that is likely to have a disastrous effect on Ireland’s already ailing pig industry.

The response of the Food Standards Agency in the UK – a country that is the biggest single importer of Irish pork, taking around 68,000 tonnes a year – has been far more ambiguous. Its knee has certainly jerked with the same alacrity as its Irish counterpart: ‘The FSA is currently advising consumers not to eat pork, or products where pork is the main ingredient, that are labelled as being from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland.’ (1) But despite that message, it has taken no action, leaving it to the supermarkets themselves to decide whether to keep Irish pork produce on the shelves. So while the FSA echoes FSAI’s fears, it then shirks all responsibility.

The result has been sheer confusion.

Newspapers have been quick to follow the authorities’ panic-stricken suit. ‘Deadly contaminant found in Irish pork’, said The Times. ‘Shoppers told: don’t eat toxic Irish pork’, informed the Daily Mail. If bald statements such as these weren’t frightening enough, the Guardian went a step further by helpfully highlighting the most famous individual case of dioxin poisoning: ‘The scarred face of Ukranian president Viktor Yushchenko.’ (2) The implication seems to be that everyone is but a string of Irish sausages away from a complexion like the surface of the moon.

But while some sections of the press have been more than happy to stoke toxic nightmares, the FSA’s unwillingness to do anything drastic betrays its underlying reticence about the reality of the risks posed. So just last night, Tesco announced that it will continue stocking Irish and Northern Irish pork products regardless of the FSA’s advice to consumers. This is not surprising given the FSA’s own scientific experts have been at pains to emphasise just how negligible is the health risk. Professor Alan Boobis, a toxicologist at Imperial College London and an adviser to the FSA, said: ‘Even the levels detected in these pigs are extremely low and present no immediate cause for concern.’ (3)

So just what is the health risk? The key thing to emphasise here is that the risk posed depends above all on long-term exposure. Dioxins, getting into our system through our food, are stored in body fat, and, with only a small percentage of this excreted each day, the amount gradually builds up over many, many years. The Tolerable Daily Intake, according to which the maximum level of dioxins is determined, is calculated in terms of the amount of a dioxin that experts recommend can be eaten every day over a whole lifetime without causing harm. Or as Alan Reilly of the FSAI put it, ‘you’d have to be eating these products containing these levels for 40 years before you’d show any signs of illness’ (4). And when you take into account that the average British citizen’s dioxin intake has fallen by 85 per cent since 1982, the difference some relatively dioxin-heavy pork will make right now is tiny (5).

It is unhelpful, then, that instead of keeping their heads when the FSAI were culling theirs, the FSA decided it was best to appear similarly vigilant. Far from calming anxieties, the FSA’s back-covering advice merely heightened them. And if FSA officials thought the precautionary pose would appease those, like Labour MP Michael Meacher, who are intent on waging war against anything that looks like a chemical in the food chain, their inaction just confirms the food-safety zealots’ worst suspicions (6). But that is what happens when you foster a climate in which porkies about Irish pork can appear perfectly plausible.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons reckoned that when it comes to food information we are suffering from a trolley-load of fears, and despaired how you can’t even enjoy a chocolate bar these days without a health warning. Nathalie Rothschild asked grocery shoppers if the FSA’s ‘traffic-light’ labels take the pleasure out of eating. James Panton had a beef with going vegetarian. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) FSA reiterates advice on Irish pork: update, Food Standards Agency, 8 December 2008

(2) Dioxin damage explained, Guardian, 8 December 2008

(3) Poison pork panic: Irish pigs were fed on plastic bags, Daily Mirror, 7 December 2008

(4) Toxic pork products ‘are not a health concern’, experts say, Daily Telegraph, 8 December 2008

(5) Dioxins and PCBs – your questions answered, Medical News Today, 28 December 2004

(6) Pork is not the only food worry, Guardian, 8 December 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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