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Ferris questions Government reaction to discovery of contamination of pig feed

9 December, 2008 - by Martin Ferris TD


Speaking in the Dáil today on the recall of Irish pork and bacon products Sinn Féin Agriculture Martin Ferris TD questioned whether the Government over-reacted to the discovery of the contamination.

Deputy Ferris said, "One issue that must be addressed is whether the ban, the slaughter of the pigs and the withdrawal of produce from retailers was an over-reaction to the discovery of the contamination. Professor James Heffron of University College Cork, and one of the leading experts in this field, has said that if the data collated by the Food Safety Authority proves that the levels of dioxins were within the acceptable limit then there was no reason why the order to withdraw pork products from sale was made.

"As he has said, these dioxins are in the atmosphere anyway and if the amounts likely to have been consumed in the small number of products that were sold were similar then no harm will have been done. Indeed from the very moment the measures were announced people were being advised that there was no need for anyone to be overly concerned and no need for anyone to seek medical advice. So there was and is no real threat to public health.

"The Food Safety Authority themselves have said that, based on previous studies into dioxin contamination both from food and from the chemical plant explosion in Seveso, the health risks involved are minimal and will remain minimal even for any person who has consumed contaminated produce.

"The question has to be posed therefore as to whether the withdrawal of all pig meat products was necessary or whether in fact something more on the lines of a public health warning might have been more appropriate. People could have been told of the facts as they were known on Sunday morning, the level of risk that was entailed and then advised that it was up to themselves whether or not they chose to consume the products affected.

"That would undoubtedly still have had some impact in the sector, with presumably a significant number of consumers choosing not to eat pig meat but that would have only lasted until current stocks of most produce was naturally replaced anyway once it went past its sell by date.

"We would have then avoided the massive shock to the sector that we are currently experiencing and in the process prevented the laying off of so many workers in the run up to Christmas, the loss to farmers affected and the losses incurred by butchers shops and butchers suppliers.

"There is also the issue of traceability. Was there a failure in the system which meant that instead of it being possible to determine exactly which farms and which animals were contaminated and then trace the supply line through the processors involved, that the entire sector became affected.

"Ought it not be possible in a case such as this that once it was known which farms had used the feed to then determine exactly where the processing of contaminated animals took place, what products resulted from this, and to which retailers or exporters they were sent. And in that way ring fence the rest of the sector, which is free from contamination, from that part that is affected." ENDS

Note to editor: Full text of Deputy Ferris' speech follows

Full text of Deputy Ferris' speech follows

As I said in my initial reaction to the current crisis the priority now must be to limit the damage that has been done to the sector and to protect the many livelihoods and jobs that are affected. The scale of the losses incurred by individual pig farmers and suppliers have already been massive and that is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

We have also already seen large scale temporary lay offs with the likelihood that if the correct measures are not taken today that further will follow. That is why it is vital that processing and supply to the shops begins again immediately.

There are somewhere in the region of 7,000 people employed including about 1,200 on the actual farms. There are also other jobs in transportation and retailing. Already we have seen a significant proportion of the processing work force temporarily laid off with the threat of more. There is no reason why things should develop in that way but that of course depends upon the industry picking itself up and resuming production.

The crisis over the contaminated produce could not have come at a worse time given that farmers have already experienced steep falls in the prices being paid to them by the factories over recent months. Unfortunately too this was attributed in some degree to the lack of domestic consumer demand for Irish pork.

That will not be helped of course by what is happening at present and makes it all the more important that the right measures are taken, and quickly, in order to ensure that the sector gets back on track. It also highlights the need to address various issues regarding the marketing of Irish pork and the labelling of pork products.

The export market is also an important aspect of the industry here and is equally affected by the current difficulties. The fact that the EU Commission has not banned Irish pork is of course to be greatly welcomed. A ban would have had catastrophic consequences. However, it also perhaps raises another issue that I will come to shortly in regard to the actions that were taken here.

The impact of the current crisis in regard to overseas markets is something that needs to be addressed. What is happening will obviously have immediate effect as it has had here with regard to the availability of pig meat but there is also the potential for it to cause longer term damage if the withdrawal of Irish pork undermines overseas consumer confidence.

That is why it is essential that the Government do all in its power to restore confidence in overseas customers and it must begin to do this immediately. Bord Bia will have a vital role to play in this aspect of the situation. The overseas market is crucial. We export approximately 60 per cent of what is produced here and those exports were valued at almost €400 million in 2007. So there are a lot of jobs and a lot of livelihoods dependent on the export market alone.

One thing that will not have helped to redress the damage done is the manner in which some sections of the British media have treated the issue and the potential damage that can do in the longer term. One paper, infamous for its role in a number of miscarriage of justice cases, ran a sensational headline referring to toxic Irish pork. Another referred to pigs here being fed plastic bags.

That sort of reporting could do immeasurable damage to Irish exports to Britain, as it is no doubt intended to, and the authorities here must ensure that first of all it stops and secondly that consumers in Britain are provided with the proper information, if necessary by demanding retractions in the newspapers concerned or the taking out of advertisements.

Another issue that must be addressed is whether the ban, the slaughter of the pigs and the withdrawal of produce from retailers was an over-reaction to the discovery of the contamination. Professor James Heffron of University College Cork, and one of the leading experts in this field, has said that if the data collated by the Food Safety Authority proves that the levels of dioxins were within the acceptable limit then there was no reason why the order to withdraw pork products from sale was made.

As he has said, these dioxins are in the atmosphere anyway and if the amounts likely to have been consumed in the small number of products that were sold were similar then no harm will have been done. Indeed from the very moment the measures were announced people were being advised that there was no need for anyone to be overly concerned and no need for anyone to seek medical advice. So there was and is no real threat to public health.

Indeed on a lighter note I am sure we all know people who had large fries on Sunday morning despite the announcement that products should be thrown out. Which is either an indication that people tend to disregard public health warnings, or perhaps that they are sensible enough to judge the risk involved for themselves.

The Food Safety Authority themselves have said that based on previous studies into dioxin contamination both from food and from the chemical plant explosion in Seveso that the health risks involved are minimal and will remain minimal even for any person who has consumed contaminated produce.

The question has to be posed therefore as to whether the withdrawal of all pig meat products was necessary or whether in fact something more on the lines of a public health warning might have been more appropriate. People could have been told of the facts as they were known on Sunday morning, the level of risk that was entailed and then advised that it was up to themselves whether or not they chose to consume the products affected.

That would undoubtedly still have had some impact in the sector, with presumably a significant number of consumers choosing not to eat pig meat but that would have only lasted until current stocks of most produce was naturally replaced anyway once it went past its sell by date.

We would have then avoided the massive shock to the sector that we are currently experiencing and in the process prevented the laying off of so many workers in the run up to Christmas, the loss to farmers affected and the losses incurred by butchers shops and butchers suppliers.

There is also the issue of traceability. Was there a failure in the system which meant that instead of it being possible to determine exactly which farms and which animals were contaminated and then trace the supply line through the processors involved, that the entire sector became affected.

Ought it not be possible in a case such as this that once it was known which farms had used the feed to then determine exactly where the processing of contaminated animals took place, what products resulted from this, and to which retailers or exporters they were sent. And in that way ring fence the rest of the sector, which is free from contamination, from that part that is affected.

Were in fact officials able to establish this and if not why was that the case? If they were able to trace where the feed went, and where the animals contaminated were slaughtered why then was it not possible to impose more limited restrictions?

One other issue which might be considered peripheral has also come to attention in the midst of this crisis. That is the fact that some retailers were still selling pork products that were labelled as Irish last Sunday. The reason they were able to do so is that the actual meat was produced in other countries but because it was packaged in Ireland it was then labelled as Irish. That is a major flaw in the current labelling system and one that needs to be addressed both in the interests of promoting Irish food produce and for wider health and safety reasons.

The solution of course is to introduce compulsory country of origin labelling and that needs to be done immediately as part of the recovery programme for the industry. If retailers can sell food produce from other countries as Irish on the basis only that it was packaged here then the labelling system is not alone deficient but downright dishonest. It means that consumers do not actually at the end of the day know what they are buying on a normal inspection of a product in a supermarket.

There is also the issue of the feed manufacturer. While I am aware that the EPA is currently conducting an inquiry and we must await the results of that it has already been reported that the plant in question did not have an EPA license and that it was using what has been described as an 'inappropriate' oil.

Surely there ought to be more stringent guidelines and sanctions in regard to this especially given the massive damage that has resulted from the use of the oil and the subsequent contamination of the feed. If the small amount of dioxin contamination is sufficient to lead to the current restrictions with all the implications which that has for the entire sector and for so many livelihoods and jobs then surely we should not be in a situation where a manufacturing plant can be using the oil in question.

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