By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Could it be that the dioxin scare is over?
It certainly looks that way. What a lot has happened since the
story first broke last Saturday.
Recalling all Irish pork was a huge decision for the authorities
south of the border. For Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith it must have
seemed like having to order a nuclear attack on the very industry he is
trying to promote.
But less than a week on and the decision to go public and warn
consumers that something potentially serious was up could reap a consumer
On the face of it dioxin pork could only be bad, but the episode
has shown the Irish food industry is real about food safety even where it
demands painful disclosure and economic loss.
Sceptics may dislike much of the marketing
spin about Ireland
being sold as the 'food island'. All that green environmental imagery can
seem a bit over the top.
And yet the way in which the Irish authorities have been able to
identify the dioxin problem, recall product and restrict farms which had
received the contaminated feed, was impressive.
The clean green image would mean very little if the authorities had
not been able to trace the path of the contaminated feed and move to
But in the event the Irish proved to have the science and the
forensic systems to deal with the issue.
Imagine if the authorities had not able to trace every farm. The
situation today would be very different.
may have felt scared initially, but just a few days on and they now know
that the food industry has the capacity to deal with this sort of thing.
If the food safety authorities in Europe
could not be convinced that all the contaminated feed had been accounted
for, then the pork and beef industry could have been facing meltdown at
It's not by chance the farming and food industry on both sides of
the border invest heavily in quality assurance. For farmers, auction
markets, meat plants and feed mills, it means a lot of form filling.
The payback for all of that is that when dioxins got into the food
chain, the authorities were able to isolate the contaminated product, get
the the system cleared out and then convince the
European Food Safety Authority to give it the green light to start
In some senses it's actually a more telling marketing campaign than
all the hype about how good Irish food is.
Consumers may have felt scared initially, but just a few days on
and they now know that the food industry has the capacity to deal with this
sort of thing.
We tell our children that telling the truth is the best policy and
that by admitting a failing it's possible then to make a fresh start and
for people to know that you have been honest about a problem.
That certainly has worked this week for the Irish food industry.
Yes, it will take a little time to win back all of the markets
lost, but in the end consumer confidence will be strengthened by the
forensic capability which has been built into the food industry.
A cynic, of course, would say that no amount of testing and tracing
can stop incidents like this happening again.
But the point of quality assurance and the monitoring of the food
chain is that mistakes can happen but a good system can allow the problem
to be identified and then dealt with.
The whole point is that consumers can now see that the authorities
have a way of investigating the full extent of a contamination incident.
The result is that rumour and suspicion
are replaced with accurate information meaning that consumers know what is
result of all this may be that farmers will be less inclined to
substitute cheaper fillers for quality assured feed
That said the dioxin issue highlights areas where the farming
industry could do better.
The farms which bought the relatively low-cost feed from the Carlow waste processing plant did leave themselves open
to some degree of risk.
True, they couldn't have known the feed was contaminated and in
that sense they were innocent victims of the situation.
The farmers, though, could have avoided the problem if they had
bought all of their livestock rations from local feed mills which have
strict quality assurance systems in place.
Feed mills test all the raw materials arriving at their gate,
monitor the entire production process and are able to guarantee the feed
delivered to the farm is wholesome.
And here we arrive at the issue of money. The farmers are under
pressure because of rising costs and retailers constantly pushing the food
industry for discounts.
It is because of that pressure that they in turn are tempted to
look for cheaper feed.
I suspect that one outcome of this dioxin scare is that any farmer
who wants to buy feed from a waste processor will need a guarantee that it
is free of all contaminants.
That would require constant quality control at waste processing
plants and that would add a lot of cost.
The relatively cheap filler might then not look just so cheap.
One result of all this may be that farmers will be less inclined to
substitute cheaper fillers for quality assured feed.