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Gildernew provides dioxins update at Stormont breakfast

15 December, 2008

Sinn Féin Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew MP MLA has addressed attendees at a joint breakfast organised by DARD and DHSSPS at the Long Gallery in Stormont this morning.

Delivering a speech at the breakfast the minister said:

"Last Monday we were dealing with the consequences of the advice given to us by the authorities in the south that they had contamination in animal feedstuffs fed to their pigs. Test results on their pork indicated levels of PCBs some 80 - 200 times above recommended levels.

"Given that contaminated feed had come north and given the volume of trade in live pigs for direct slaughter from the South, as a consequence, we too were facing the prospect of having to recall our pigmeat from all markets. On receipt of this information from the South restrictions were immediately placed on those premises identified by DAFF (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) as having received potentially contaminated feed.

"The actions taken here to withdraw our product from the shelves to store, on a precautionary basis, gave Brussels the necessary assurance to avoid a total recall of our product. It also gave our authorities opportunity to complete all the initial tracings and inspection visits.

"Following investigations by my staff, we were able to confirm to the FSA that no pigs in the North had been fed contaminated feed. It was a great relief to us all that the pork industry was quickly able to get up and running after the FSA confirmed that pigs born and reared here are unaffected by this incident. I am keen to ensure the industry suffers as little as possible and I have tried to be forthright in getting the message out that pork is safe. I appreciate the assistance of the Chair of the Agriculture Committee and others in reiterating that message.

"Furthermore, a system has now been established that allows processors here to receive pigs from the South for slaughter if they are accompanied by a certificate guaranteeing that they are not from a herd which has been identified by DAFF as being affected.

"Following the announcement on Thursday of the EU approval for Private Storage Aid for the South, I lobbied the Defra Minister, Hilary Benn, for a similar scheme for the North. I felt strongly that our industry should not be put at any economic disadvantage to their southern counterparts. A formal written request has been made to Commissioner Fischer-Boel and we await her response. Initial soundings appear to be positive but it is likely to be the end of the week before we know the outcome.

"My department is also supporting the industry through the provision of Export Trade Certificates. Where appropriate I, in conjunction with Invest NI, am currently exploring options to provide additional assistance to processors to raise awareness of pork quality and to increase consumer confidence in pork produce.

"The outstanding issue still to be resolved is around cattle herds that may also be implicated. The tracings from the premises that received potentially contaminated feed led us to 12 cattle herds that were potentially affected. Two of these premises are dairy herds, the others are beef herds. All were restricted. Two were subsequently derestricted after checks had established that they had not received contaminated feed.

"For normal surveillance purposes, the PCB test is internationally accredited as a marker test for dioxins. On this basis it was used to screen samples from affected herds. As test results become available, they have been forwarded by AFBI to the FSA. It has helpfully enabled the FSA, in conjunction with other evidence, to declare that milk from the restricted dairy herds can be placed on the market, and to conclude that a further two of the beef herds could be derestricted.

"The European SCOFCAH (Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health) meeting on 12 December advised that potentially affected herds could not be derestricted on the basis of PCB marker testing alone and that dioxin testing would be required. Samples representing the remaining eight herds have been forwarded to a specialist laboratory in England for these confirmatory tests. I have arranged for those tests to start today, but you should be aware that it takes approximately one week for each test. The test results will then be forwarded to the FSA to make an informed decision. However, you will be kept informed as information comes to light.

"Throughout this investigation my staff have worked to provide and assist the Food Standards Agency who are responsible for ensuring public health is not jeopardised. We will continue to work to clarify the situation and enable the FSA to have the best information we can provide to protect the consumer and our industry.

"In summary the Food Standards Agency has advised that consumers can be reassured that systems are in place, so we can buy pork from both the North and the South with confidence. There are no concerns over our milk and milk products. As far as our beef is concerned, further testing is being carried out on eight herds which have been restricted. No animals from these herds can enter the food chain. Sheep and poultry remain unaffected.

"This breakfast gives me opportunity to thank you all for your support in the past week. I appreciate the full co-operation of the industry in what was a difficult and worrying time." ENDS

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