Supermarkets in up to 25 countries are pulling contaminated Irish pork from their shelves amid fears that the meat could cause cancer.
The scandal erupted after pigs ate contaminated feed
The Irish government has ordered the food industry to recall all Irish-sourced pork products from shops, restaurants and plants because of contamination with dioxins, which can cause cancer. The alarm was initially sounded on Saturday, Dec. 6, after dioxins were found in slaughtered pigs thought to have eaten tainted feed.
The recall affects pork products processed since Sept. 1, 2008. It has caused panic across Ireland, where many families would now usually be buying their traditional Christmas ham.
Ireland is also a major exporter of pork, with Britain the biggest market followed by Germany, France, Russia and Japan. Other major export destinations include China and Hong Kong. On Sunday, Ireland's chief veterinarian said contaminated Irish pork may have been exported to up to 25 countries.
"We believe it's in the order of 20 to 25 countries. It's certainly less than 30," Paddy Rogan said in comments quoted by the Irish media.
Possible mistakes in feed production
Experts say the dioxins likely entered the food chain after unsuitable fuel was used in the machinery to dry recycled baked goods which are ingredients in pig feed. Officials are investigating a feed plant run by Millstream Power Recycling Limited near Fenagh, County Carlow in southwest Ireland.
Irish PM Brian Cowen says the government will do all it can to restore trust
A spokesman for the firm said the oil used in the machinery was being tested, but denied that any oil or other substance had been added to the feed during processing.
Dioxins are toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, hormone disruption, skin toxicity and immune system disorders as well as affect reproduction if there is long-term exposure to them at high levels.
Food Safety Authority of Ireland deputy chief executive Alan Reilly said dioxin levels found in meat samples were between 80 and 200 times above the legal limit but stressed the risk to the public was "very, very low."
"You would have to be eating products containing these chemicals for 40 years before you would show any signs of illness," he said.
An economic blow during recession
Meanwhile, Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen has been trying to calm the situation.
Pork production is a important industry for Ireland
"The problem has been located," he said. "The continuing examination and inquiries will proceed and we must take action to reinforce confidence to the public, and obviously also allow the industry to move on from this point."
The crisis comes as a blow to recession-hit Ireland, where about 5,000 people work in the pork industry. According to official figures, in 2007, Ireland exported 129,000 tons of pork meat worth 368 million euros ($468 million).
In addition to pork meat, bacon and sausages, many other products such as ready meals, pizzas and sandwiches are affected by the recall.
Germany said it was taking all Irish pork products off the shelves as a precautionary measure, while contaminated Irish pork has been found in France and Belgium. Swedish authorities have also advised consumers to avoid products containing Irish pork until further notice.
The European Commission announced it was closely monitoring the situation, saying experts from countries that may have received tainted pork shipments would meet on Tuesday.