Cross-posted from the European Tribune

The Irish Government is facing a perfect storm of economic collapse, political difficulties, and now the pork dioxin contamination scare.  

Tax receipts are collapsing and could result in a public expenditure deficit of 10% of GDP next year – even without any stimulus package to boost economic activity. Unemployment will double. Health sector cutbacks remain hugely emotive (despite a four-fold increase in public health expenditure over the past 10 years).  

The Lisbon Treaty issue appears to be moving slowly towards some kind of resolution at EU council level, although how the Irish electorate will react to a referendum re-run next year is anyone’s guess.

To make matters worse the key food production sector is reeling from the dioxin contamination scare which will do untold damage to the Irish food brand and probably cost €Billions before this is all over.
To take the last issue first, the dioxin contamination is an object lesson on how vulnerable our food supply chain is to any malpractice at any stage in the process.  What appears to have happened is that a food recycling plant producing pig feed used oil in the drying process.  It claims to have bought oil of the correct grade from reputable suppliers within the Republic, but police investigations are centred around a Northern Ireland business which is supposed to store or incinerate waste electrical transformer oil under license.

Carlow firm insists it bought oil in Republic – The Irish Times – Wed, Dec 10, 2008

A Department of Agriculture/Food Safety Authority of Ireland press briefing in Dublin on Monday was told that “inappropriate” oil was used in a burner used in the heating process of waste food at Millstream Recycling in Co Carlow, which was used on 10 pig and 45 beef farms in the Republic.

The PSNI is involved with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Garda Síochána in an investigation into the source of the oil used at the plant where the contamination originated.

The Irish Times understands they are looking at a business operation in Co Tyrone where it is believed waste oil from electricity transformers, which should have been stored or incinerated under licence, may be involved.

Members of the Garda’s National Bureau of Criminal Investigation are also investigating the origins of the oil and confirmed they had spoken to a number of people from the Carlow plant. It is understood they have told the officers they bought the oil legally and believed it was of a quality required for the processing of the animal feed.

The gardaí involved in the investigation have indicated their inquiries have not formally become a criminal matter and they are closely liaising with the PSNI to compare the version of accounts given by those in the Carlow plant with the version given by the suppliers in the North.

In a statement from the plant issued today, the company at the centre of the food scare said: “Millstream Recycling wishes to state that the company has only ever purchased the oil from a legitimate supplier in the Republic of Ireland

Apparently the fumes from this “inappropriate” oil were the source of trace dioxin contamination in the pig feed.  Perhaps, someone, somewhere along the line, thought they could make a few bob substituting waste oil for food grade oil but the cost will be measured in €Billions.

The political fall-out from all this is that Ireland claims to have the best system of food traceability in the world – and farmers certainly feel they are being regulated and supervised to death.  However the problem first appears to have been identified in Belgium, and, when traced back to the food recycling plant, was found to have effected only a few farms and a few processing plants.  Why then was all Irish pork – including organic pork – immediately banned from all shop shelves?

Part of the problem is that many pork products – sausages, pates etc. are composite products where traceability is lost at some stage in the process.  However the larger problem appears to have been that Ministers and their Officials lacked confidence in their own traceability system and proceeded to ban all pork.  To add insult to injury, the European Food Safety Authority has now stated that:

European food body says Irish pork is safe to eat – The Irish Times – Wed, Dec 10, 2008

There are no adverse health effects to the consumption of Irish pork contaminated with dioxins, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded.

In a statement which will provide comfort for Irish authorities and assuage the concerns of consumers, the EFSA says if a person ate an average amount of Irish pork daily since September 1st, 10 per cent of which was contaminated with the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, there would be “no concern” for human health.

In an extreme case, where someone ate a large amount of pork, 100 per cent contaminated with the highest recorded concentration of pork, the EFSA says the safety margin would be “considerably undermined”.

However, since the margins for acceptable weekly intake have a 10-fold safety margin, the group says that while protection would be reduced, it would “not necessarily lead to adverse health effects

I will leave the debate as to whether any concentration of dioxins can be deemed to be safe to the experts.  Clearly the Government acted with the best possible motives in taking a “safety first” approach and banning all pork product sales until the situation was clarified.  However you can imagine the anger of organic and other farmers and processors who never used any feed from the effected pig feed recycling plant.  And at every stage of the supply chain people huge costs are being incurred as customers look to return product and be refunded for it.

In fairness to the Irish food industry, there has been a huge focus on quality and traceability in recent years with a huge administrative overhead and it is understandable that those who have worked hard to achieve the highest standards will feel betrayed by the systems that have been put in place to assure quality and safeguard the industry.  It appears that the food recycling plant in question was regarded as “low risk” and only inspected very irregularly, and it is unclear whether such an inspection would have uncovered the use of “inappropriate” oil in the food heating/drying process.

The vegetarians and organic food devotees amongst us will say “I told you so” and that industrial food production methods will inevitably result in such debacles.  Certainly, current mass food production methods seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to any problem  at any point in the production chain.  I’m not sure that the mass production of pure food is possible or economic in today’s very intensive and populous societies.  But we certainly have to do an awful lot better than we have done to date.

All of which brings me back to the political situation. As the Finance Minister in the previous Government, Cowen cannot escape responsibility for the failure to foresee and forestall the current crisis.  The Lisbon Referendum defeat occurred on his watch.  And now we have what appears to be a mismanaged quality assurance system for the food industry which is going to decimate Cowen’s rural base.  It seems he can do nothing right and the Government parties can expect to be hammered in the June EU Parliament and Local Government elections.  

The system is broken, but confidence in the opposition is no higher.  We may not yet have riots in the street on the Greek model, but something has to give in the next few months.  Europe, after the Great Depression, experienced a period of extraordinary instability resulting, ultimately, in world war.  Obama appears to be generating new hope and momentum in the US.  Where is leadership in Europe going to come from?

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