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The Irish dioxin crisis: six days that shook the nation

Alan Reilly and Nick Gathergood

The SCI’s Republic of Ireland Regional Group held its AGM on 16 April in Trinity College, Dublin; and as usual, this was followed by a public lecture. This year the speaker was Alan Reilly, formerly of the World Health Organization, and currently Deputy Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. His topic was ‘The Irish dioxin crisis: six days that shook the nation’.

In November 2008, a routine analysis of a bread-based pig-feed showed the presence of ‘marker PCBs’ (non-dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls). Further analysis confirmed the presence of ‘dioxins’ (in fact, the closely related ‘PCDFs’ or polychlorinated dibenzofurans). These were also found in pork and pork products from pigs that had eaten the feed. The FSAI and the government promptly ordered a recall of all Irish pork, and advised consumers to dispose of Irish pork in their freezers. Not surprisingly, this led to a media frenzy and public panic, but also to criticisms that this was an over-reaction. After all, the levels found were only two hundred parts per billion (ppb), and the short-term risk to human health was minuscule – comparable in dioxin terms to smoking a few cigarettes or walking down a busy street. But the truth was that there really wasn’t any choice – ‘only’ 200 ppb is actually two hundred times the EU limit for meat and meat products from pigs, because the main problem with dioxins is the lifetime exposure, and such levels could have been quite significant, particularly for youngsters. Massively higher levels were later found in livers from the affected pigs.

In the end, Ireland’s prompt action drew praise from other EU member states – following a similar incident in Belgium in 1999, when the authorities took the opposite decision, the political fallout was enormous. But what many in the audience found particularly interesting, and even disturbing, was the revelation that affected pork was processed into sausage in Germany or paté in Poland, for instance. These were then legally re-exported all over Europe as German or Polish products. Thankfully, they were also quickly recalled, but in principle, consumers could have eaten them while having no idea that the products contained Irish pork.

Dr David Birkett, Hon. Secretary, SCI’s Republic of Ireland Regional Group

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