Ireland Faces Pork Crisis Over Tainted Feed Fears

Nation's decision to recall all pork products because of contamination fears won support from European health officials -- but threatened to bankrupt the Irish pig industry.

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) -- Ireland's surprise decision to recall all of its pork products because of contamination fears won support Monday from European health officials -- but threatened to bankrupt the Irish pig industry as two-dozen countries hustled to get Irish pork off their menus.

Pig meat processors warned of a potentially fatal financial squeeze, because they are stuck with stocks they cannot sell and face simultaneous demands to cull 100,000 pigs suspected of dioxin poisoning. They demanded euro1 billion ($1.25 billion) in emergency aid in a meeting with Prime Minister Brian Cowen and vowed not to slaughter a single pig until they get it.

Underscoring the crisis, Ireland's biggest pig meat processor, Rosderra Irish Meats Group Ltd., turned away its 850 employees at four plants Monday and told them to sign up for state unemployment benefits. Irish labor union SIPTU said 6,000 pork-industry workers faced layoffs this week nationwide.

The Irish government announced Saturday that some Irish pork contained illegal levels of dioxin chemicals and ordered the recall or destruction of all Irish pork products produced since Sept. 1. The government now faces an uphill struggle to restore international confidence in an industry worth more than euro450 million ($570 million) annually, chiefly in exports to Europe and Asia.

Russia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore all announced import bans Monday on Irish pork. But Irish, British and European Union officials stressed that contaminated Irish pork posed no real health threat if eaten -- because the dioxins in question must be consumed for years to pose a cancer risk.

European Union health officials said Ireland had acted responsibly in issuing its international warning. The EU said all importers of Irish pork should ensure their current stocks are removed from sale and dumped, destroyed or returned to Ireland. But an EU-wide ban on future Irish pork shipments would be overkill.

"We are satisfied that what the Irish government has decided to do is satisfactory and that we don't feel at present we need to take any further action," EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said in Brussels, Belgium.

Ireland's health and agricultural chiefs pinpointed the contamination source as a single animal-food maker in southeast Ireland, Millstream Power Recycling Ltd., which supplied food to nine pig farms each in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

The Agriculture Department's senior inspector of animal feed, Dermot Ryan, said Millstream was using an inappropriate type of fuel oil in a burner that dried out-of-date bread, dough and confectionary. He said vapors from the burning oil worked its way into the food, creating dioxin levels 80 to 200 times above legal limits.

Ryan also noted that Millstream required a permit from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency to burn oil as it did, but did not have one.

Millstream said it was cooperating with all Irish investigations, which includes a probe by Ireland's national police force into possible criminal offenses.

Investigators have determined that Millstream also supplied 38 beef farms in the Republic of Ireland with oil-tainted feed, and test results on cattle at those farms is expected Tuesday. But Irish officials said illegal levels of dioxins were not expected to be found in cows because they eat a diet largely of grass, not man-made feed.

Food safety experts said Ireland was obliged to withdraw all pork products, even though Millstream supplied only a handful of Ireland's approximately 400 pig farms, because of how pigs are slaughtered and pig meat processed. Different parts go to different processing plants, while meat from scores of farms can end up in the same sausage.

"Once pig meat enters the processing sector and is turned into sausages and processed meats, traceability to the processor and perhaps the day of production may be possible, but not back to the individual farm," said Dr. Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at University College Dublin and a former chairman of the European Food Safety Authority.

"Because the regulatory authorities in Ireland had no way of knowing which meat came from the nine farms, they initiated a recall on all pig meat. There are 400 pig producers in Ireland and, although only nine pig farms fed the contaminated ration, meat from the other 391 is also caught up in the recall," Wall said.