Ireland Tainted Meat
Peter Morrison  /  AP
Cattle stand in a field near Virginia, Ireland, on Dec. 9, 2008. Ireland announced Tuesday it has found illegal levels of dioxins, the chemicals that are devastating its pork industry, in cattle, but insisted its beef was safe to eat.
updated 12/9/2008 3:49:30 PM ET 2008-12-09T20:49:30

Irish officials confirmed Tuesday that cattle at three farms have tested positive for dioxin — the cancer-causing chemical that has contaminated its pork industry — but insisted the country's beef posed no real risk to health.

Ireland has already ordered the withdrawal and destruction of all pork products produced since Sept. 1, a sweeping move the government says should reinforce — not undermine — international confidence in Ireland's food exports.

But Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith said the government decided not to recall any Irish beef products at home or abroad because, unlike the contamination of pork products, the level and extent of dioxin found so far in cattle is much lower.

Smith said the cattle with excessive dioxin levels were "technically noncompliant, but not at a level that would pose any public health concern." Still, he said Ireland would prevent the movement of any cattle or beef from the three farms in question.

Alan Reilly, deputy director of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, stressed that the dioxin levels found in the most contaminated cattle were just two to three times European Union safety limits, whereas pigs at nine dioxin-threatened Irish farms recorded dioxin levels 80 to 200 times too high.

"There's a huge difference between 200 times above a legal limit, and two to three times," Reilly said.

No word on whether beef was exported
The government declined to say whether any cattle from the three farms had produced beef that went to foreign markets. Reilly said most of the beef produced since September was still in storage, being aged to improve its tenderness and taste.

A recall of Irish beef would do even greater damage to Ireland's recession-hit economy than its emergency shutdown Saturday of the pork industry. Ireland has 69,000 beef farms but just 400 pig farms.

Ireland exports 85 percent of its beef to about 35 other countries, chiefly in Europe, a trade valued at more than $2.2 billion. Irish pork generates only a third as much money and reaches 25 other countries. In both cases, neighboring Britain is Ireland's major customer.

Irish investigators have traced the source of the contamination to a single animal-food maker, Millstream Power Recycling Ltd., which used an oil-fired burner to dry out-of-date bread, dough and confectionary.

The Agriculture Department says Millstream — which has been shut down pending investigations by the government and police — was using a kind of oil that should never be used around food, creating fumes that infused the food with dioxins. It also failed to get the appropriate oil-burning permit from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency.

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Authorities say Millstream supplied oil-tainted feed to at least nine pig farms and 45 cattle farms in the Republic of Ireland, and nine pig farms and 10 cattle farms in the British territory of Northern Ireland.

Tuesday's test results that confirmed too-high levels of dioxin in cattle at three Irish farms also cleared eight others of contamination. The Irish government declined to specify when results on the 34 other cattle farms would be confirmed.

But Reilly said he expected the number of total positive results to be in similar proportion to Tuesday's findings. This would mean about a quarter, or nine, more cattle farms could test positive for excessive dioxin.

He noted the cattle ate much less of the Millstream product than the pigs, because cows still eat mostly grass in the fall while pigs rely on man-made fodder.

Still awaiting test results
In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, authorities announced Tuesday that none of the pig farms that received the Millstream product actually used it, which means its pork products can return immediately to store shelves and export markets. But Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, Michelle Gildernew, said she was still awaiting test results later this week on the 10 suspect cattle farms.

International research shows that dioxins, a family of chemicals that can accumulate and be retained for years in body fat, can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Irish authorities, however, point to Europe's last major dioxin scare — in Belgium in May 1999, when thousands of farms were closed after dioxin-contaminated animal feed tainted meat, eggs and dairy products — to show that short-term exposure should not pose a risk.

"We're dealing in broad terms with the same exposure levels as in Belgium, where the follow-up showed no impact on public health," said Ireland's chief medical officer, Dr. Tony Holoran.

He stressed that, even if anyone ate both the dioxin-tainted beef or pork daily for the past three months, it still wouldn't be enough to cause a health problem.

"The risks are extremely low from any exposure that may occur. People do not need to seek any direct medical advice. We do not expect to see symptoms occurring as a result of this," Holoran said.

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