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experts respond to the news that high levels of dioxins have been found in slaughtered pigs in the Republic of Ireland

Irish pork products were withdrawn from sale across Europe as a precautionary measure after high levels of the chemicals were discovered in meat from the country. However, the risk assessment suggested no immediate risk to humans. The incident was believed to have been caused by contamination of animal feed.

Prof Chris Elliott, Professor of Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast, said:

“While consumers want (and deserve) food free from chemical contaminants, in this case there does not appear to be any significant risk to health from consumption of the tainted pork products. The contamination of the animal feed itself appears to be the cause of this food scare, as is often the case; it also appears to be limited to the product of one supplier and it should therefore be a quick and simple task to track down the cause of the problem. However, the effects on the Irish pork industry in relation to the loss of consumer confidence will not be so easy to resolve.

“Monitoring for Dioxins and other chemicals in foods is a difficult and expensive task. However some more thought must be given to try and identify such problems before food reaches the supermarket shelves.”

Prof Alan Boobis, Toxicologist at Imperial College London, said:

“These compounds take a long time to accumulate in the body, so a relatively short period of exposure would have little impact on the total body burden. One would have to be exposed to high levels for a long period of time before there would be a health risk.

“Even the levels detected in these pigs are extremely low and present no immediate cause for concern, but it is prudent of the Irish government to recall the meat while scientists get to the bottom of this contamination.”

Nicky Paull, President of the British Veterinary Association, said:

“The dioxin appears to have come in via contaminated by-products that are used as supplements to pig feed.

“Ireland has reacted very responsibly in recalling all pig meat – bearing in mind only 47 farms were affected – as by recalling everything consumers can be much more reassured.

“As regards the possible risk to humans dioxin is a carcinogen but there is certainly no acute toxicity risk. I am certain that the human health professionals will be able to give you a better steer on this. It will depend very much on the amount that any one person potentially may have consumed but we are talking about very tiny amounts. When figures are put on safety levels for any chemical there is then added a huge safety index form 100 x to 1000 x so when we hear that the levels found in the meat are 80 – 100 x the safe level we can be reassured that in real terms we are still talking about tiny amounts. However it was absolutely correct to act to remove any risk at all by recalling the products.

“Around 90% of UK produced pig meat is produced as farm assured which means there will be good traceability set up both for the pigs themselves but also for the pig feed. This should give us reassurance that if there are any issues regarding this in the UK pig industry the FSA will be able to track any problems closely.”

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