updated 12/18/2008 4:16:17 PM ET 2008-12-18T21:16:17

Lab tests on cattle at four Irish farms have found much higher levels of cancer-causing dioxins than initially thought, government agency officials said Thursday, but they stressed that the problem still posed no risk to public health.

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The Food Safety Authority of Ireland said tests conducted over the past week at an English lab found dioxin levels 100 to 400 times higher than legal limits. That conflicted starkly with an initial announcement last week that the contamination levels were two to three times above those limits.

The government ordered a global recall of pork products Dec. 6 after finding dioxin levels 80 to 200 times legal limits in pigs that had received oil-contaminated feed from a single Irish manufacturer, Millstream Power Recycling Ltd.

But European food safety experts subsequently declared that the tainted Irish pork did not pose a realistic health risk. And Irish officials insisted Thursday that the dioxin threat to its beef products, even though higher in samples, was even more minuscule.

As a result, the Agriculture Department confirmed that the only enforcement action required to minimize the public risk of dioxin consumption was to kill all the cattle at 21 farms that received the tainted feed. All cattle shipments at those farms had been frozen since Dec. 5.

Slideshow: Get a taste of food safety In a joint statement, the Food Safety Authority and Agriculture Department said “implicated carcasses from any of the 21 farms” had been getting tracked down since Dec. 9 “and these too will not enter the food chain.”

The Agriculture Department said investigations found that Millstream-produced feed was eaten only at those 21 cattle farms. Cattle at 30 others suspected of using the tainted feed were publicly cleared for slaughter Thursday.

No mention of chemical levels
The official announcement — which coincided with a major government press conference on Ireland’s recession-hit economy — made no mention of the specific findings of dioxin levels 100 to 400 times above legal limits. It said only that the beef test results “were higher than those found in the pork products.”

The Associated Press received specific figures from one of the agency’s toxicologists, Rob Evans. Other officials at the government’s Agriculture and Health departments corroborated the figures.

“They’re high,” Evans said of the dioxin levels. “We expected there would be dioxins but we weren’t able to predict the ratio.”

He said last week’s announcement, suggesting levels two to three times the legal limit, represented the level of “indicator” PCBs found in the meat samples — not the dioxin itself.

Evans said a range of factors — including the lower level of fat in beef than in pork, people’s lower consumption of beef versus pork, and the greater ability to track beef products back to specific farms — meant that people consumed far fewer dioxins from the beef than the pork before the problem was detected.

The joint Food Safety-Agriculture statement also asserted that the number of beef farms affected, 21, paled in comparison with a total of 120,000 cattle farms in Ireland. That figure did not distinguish between farms where cattle are reared for beef or for milk production; the latter are not part of the human food chain.

The Irish food promotion agency, Bord Bia, says Ireland has 69,000 beef farms.

Dioxins are a family of chemicals that can cause cancer if ingested in sufficient quantity for a long enough time. The dioxin found in the pigs and cattle was PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl. Once eaten it accumulates in human fat and remains there for many years.

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