The detection of high dioxin levels in pork has been met by murmurs of ‘here we go again’. Ireland was hard hit by the BSE crisis of 1996 and by the food-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001.
It is true, there are striking similarities between the three events. All three have seriously undermined confidence in Irish meat; all three have caused job losses and will have traumatised the economy; and all three have been caused by practices in animal feed.
But there are also some differences, most notably in the context of the crises. Huge strides have been made in food safety since the 1990s. Indeed, the fall-out from BSE led directly to the establishment of multi-level food safety agencies which pledge to put consumers’ health first.
For instance, the Food Standards Agency of Ireland (FSAI) was set up in 1998/9, and the UK’s FSA in 2000. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rolled into action in 2002.
These agencies, and others across Europe and the world, represent a break with the past when day-to-day industry interest and productionism may have come first.
The safeguards they bring with them have swung into action over Irish pork in the last week. EFSA’s initial scientific view is expected to be published today; it was given just one day to deliver it.
And there is some thought that the better level of controls actually led to detection of the pork contamination. It was found as part of a routine check.
The contamination looks to have been occurring since September. While the burning of the oil that led to the problem looks to have been illegal and is under investigation, in times past such contamination could have been happening for years before anyone thought to check.
And in the case of dioxins, that is crucial, since it is long term exposure to high levels that has grave consumer health implications.
On the other hand, some probing questions must be asked about how this could have happened, and whether it was handled in the best possible way in the crucial early stages.
Why, for example, was the public only made aware last Saturday, when the problem was identified a week before?
And why were communications between politicians and across the border less than wide open? Northern Ireland’s health minister Michael McGimpsey not in the loop until Sunday.
The six-day delay in the recall has so far been put down to the lack of dioxin testing facilities in Ireland, meaning that pork had to travel to York in order to be tested.
But that beggars another question: Why were there no facilities in Ireland, a modern EU member state where agriculture is crucial to the economy, and which has already been twice bitten by meat safety crisis in the last 12 years.
(The FSAI has said that a local Irish laboratory will be set up in February 2009; it is unclear whether this was already in the works, or whether it is a response to this week’s crisis.)
These necessary questions are already being posed, from the kitchens of families wondering what to eat two weeks tomorrow, through to high ranking officials in Brussels.
Let’s not use Irish pork as a battering ram for food safety. We have come a long way in the last 15 years – but the modern food chain is full of nooks and crannies where potential and hitherto un-thought-of threats to food safety can lurk.
The take-away from this week’s events is that we should seek to predict and prevent these as much as we can – but always be looking to refresh knowledge and investing in new controls accordingly.
Most of all, we should never sit back on our haunches and believe we have cracked it.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com