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Friday 9 December 2016

Survivors from Ireland's disastrous dioxin storm

Robert Hogg and Norman Bradley took a hammering two years ago during the pig feed scare but a recent Commercial Court ruling has cleared their names

John Shirley

Published 15/02/2011 | 05:00

Robert Hogg, left, and Norman Bradley look at the scrapbook of press coverage from the pork dioxin incident
Robert Hogg, left, and Norman Bradley look at the scrapbook of press coverage from the pork dioxin incident
The drier at the centre of the dioxin scare
A private security firm patrols Millstream Power Plant just outside Fenagh, Co Carlow
The sealed off plant

Two years on from Ireland's worst dioxin crisis, the dark clouds which enveloped Millstream Recycling, the company at the centre of the animal feed scare, are starting to lift.

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Recent court judgments have helped clear the names of Millstream Recycling's directors but serious questions remain in this episode, where there could be no winners.

Who was the primary producer of the fuel oil which led to the pork contamination? While a source has been speculated on, the company has still to be publicly identified.

Why did the Department of Agriculture allow Millstream Recycling to be demonised?

Will fair play apply and ensure that Millstream and Norman Bradley, the owner of the premises on which the recycling plant was located, get a share of the overall compensation?

Background

Millstream Recycling purchases surplus and out-of-date food and drinks for conversion in animal feed, fuels, biogas and composts. It was developed by the Hogg family, who had specialised in pigs and poultry on their small land parcel at Clohamom, Co Wexford.

As the business grew, Robert Hogg moved Millstream into warehouses built near Fenagh, Co Carlow, by Norman Bradley, his friend from schooldays. Following a farm accident in which he lost an arm, Bradley had diversified from livestock into the warehouse business.

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Among the foods handled by Millstream were the by-products from bread, confectionery and biscuit making.

To ensure that this was not carrying salmonella, or other infection, Mr Hogg installed a drying unit in the Fenagh plant in September 2006.

He contacted the Department of Agriculture, explained the direct flame-drying process, and got the go ahead to use recycled vegetable oil. His prime concern at this time was BSE. The Department was aware that vegetable oil was already used in boiler burners, which heated piggeries. During that period, two Department officials came to view the operation.

In April 2008, supplies of recycled vegetable oil dried up and Hogg was offered mineral oil of a non-animal source refined to fuel standard. This oil was supplied by Dublin firm Newtown Lodge Ltd, which in turn had been supplied by O'Neill Fuels Ltd of Annaghmore Hill, Coalisland, Co Tyrone.

Machines were checked regularly for carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide to ensure a clean and efficient burn. The possibility of dioxin contamination wasn't considered.

"We trusted our supplier and assumed that the oil was clean," Mr Hogg says.

But the evidence points to a batch of this new oil bringing chaos and disaster for both the Irish pig sector and Millstream.

The dioxin scare catapulted Millstream Recycling and its connections into an inter-national media scrum, and was to cost both Irish and EU taxpayers close to €180m.

Ironically, Mr Hogg had stopped using the Newtown Lodge oil in October 2008 because high sediment levels blocked the jets in the drier. He also considered using gas in the burner, and a sample of the offending oil, which had been sent to Flogas for calorific analysis, later proved crucial in establishing the contamination.

The supply chain pre-O'Neill Fuels has not been publicly stated, but it is speculated that illegal transformer oil was the contaminant involved.

In the Commercial Courts, Millstream Recycling was recently awarded €38m in damages against Newtown Lodge and €38.7m against O'Neill Fuels.

During court proceedings, Newtown Lodge denied the oil supplied by it to Millstream was defective. It pleaded, if the oil was contaminated, it was not its fault as, it alleged, it was supplied to it by O'Neill Fuels.

More than likely, the financial judgements made to Millstream will not be collectable.

The Court was told that O'Neill Fuels had ceased trading and Newtown Lodge had applied for liquidation.

But the judgments have helped restore the good name of Millstream Recycling and its connections.

In any event, any cash from the judgments is earmarked for the Millstream Creditors who looked for €34m in compensation and agreed a share out of the liability insurance from FBD, which had a limit of €6.5m.

Cash from the judgements would have helped make up the outstanding balance.

What for the future?

Mr Hogg was advised to liquidate Millstream Recycling. "Why should I? I did nothing wrong," he argues.

The company was back operating on a smaller scale from February 2009 and now employs nine people. Most of the suppliers and customers are back on board, and Mr Hogg is working on the others. The pig unit is rented out until he can get the funds to restock it.

An immediate priority is to get the Bradley premises in Fenagh freed up and decontaminated. Now that the men's names have been cleared, he would welcome support from the IFA to get Department movement on this issue.

(Mr Bradley's father Tom gave a lifetime of service to the IFA and the NFA before that.)

Publicity

For Mr Bradley, the first hint of trouble came when Department inspectors came to the plant on his farm to take feed samples.

Dioxin-related PCBs had been found in pork in Holland and it was possible that product from Ireland was to blame.

Mr Hogg was in Argentina on honeymoon when he got the Earth-shattering news. He had to return home immediately.

Given the history of dioxin food scares, Mr Hogg could have anticipated a tsunami of press interest. What he wasn't prepared for was the vilification and demonising of him and his operation in the Irish media, especially so when he had always run a pristine clean business, and from the start of the scare he had fully co- operated with the Department officials.

He recalled: "One radio caller suggested that I should be strung up in O'Connell Street.

"People were coming up and abusing me in the street. The village was full of press and photographers.

"There were helicopters overhead, and television crews outside our house and also outside the feed mill in Fenagh. It was unrelenting. Eventually, we abandoned our home and moved in with friends for a week till the furore eased, but we had to travel around in a vehicle with darkened windows."

Mr Hogg's fiercest regret was the hardship visited on his customers, and to the Irish pig and pork industry, but points out that he and Bradley were also victims.

Close to 7,000 elite-bred pigs from his own farm were slaughtered with no compensation received as yet.

More than two years' ago, Bradley's warehouse was commandeered by the Department of Agriculture for storing allegedly contaminated meal taken back from farms.

This meal is still there and no storage fee or rental has been forthcoming.

Mr Bradley is at the loss of the facility, which was supposed to provide an alternative income following his farm accident.

High standards

Those who know Mr Hogg and Mr Bradley, or who traded with Millstream Recycling, can testify to their absolute personal integrity and to the quality of their operation.

Mr Hogg used the Millstream feed in his own pig unit. Like other herds using the Millstream feed, this herd too was slaughtered. The Hogg pig unit had been maintained as Minimal Disease since 1995 and was populated with elite pedigree stock.

In the two years pre the cull, 6,000 pigs from this unit were exported to Russia as parent breeding stock for farmers in that country. In December 2008, just as the pork scare was about to erupt, Millstream Recycling had installed a €37,000 system of barcoding to scan all loads entering and leaving the feed mill. The outcome would have been enhanced traceability.

This does not fit in with the image of a "shoddy operator", as was quoted in the media at the time of the pork scare.

When it came to culling the Hogg herd, this was carried out on the farm. The Department wanted to practice an on-farm slaughter, so as to be ready for a possible foot-and-mouth outbreak in the future. In agreement with the Hogg family, they brought in about 25 vets to train for such an operation.

While the job was done efficiently and as humanely as possible, the culling of such a herd, which had been expertly bred through the years, was highly traumatic for both Mr Hogg and the herd manager.

The Department

The role of the Department of Agriculture in the pork-dioxin incident merits examination. It could be argued that the Department's performance was patchy at best; too little supervision pre-crisis, followed by an over-reaction when the crisis erupted.

However, the Inter-Agency Review Group later concluded that once the Irish incident was identified by the national official food and feed-control programmes, "it was managed as well, or better, than similar incidents that occurred elsewhere".

European agencies were also complimentary of the manner in which the Irish authorities handled the 2008 scare, stating that the Government had moved at an early stage to restore consumer confidence.

Still, the story was not an entirely positive one. As far back as 2000, the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition (Scan) identified the dioxin threat arising from the direct flame-drying of high moisture animal feed (the exact threat which tripped up Millstream).

This opinion was communicated to the Department of Agriculture in Dublin and led to subsequent EU legislative change.

The Hogg family made repeated efforts, including requests to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner, to discover how widely the Scan opinion had been circulated and to whose attention it had been brought.

The Hoggs maintain that such vital information should have been circulated to all staff involved in monitoring animal feeds and all those involved in the food chain.

The Department told the FOI commission that it was unable to locate any records of it disseminating the Scan opinion, and because no such record existed, the Department argued that FOI did not apply to this episode.

The report of the Inter-Agency Review Group on the December 2008 dioxin incident concluded that "official controls should have paid attention to the risks associated with direct flame-drying and that the inadequacy of Millstream's management system was not identified through the official controls operated by the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food."

After the initial visit from the Department officials, the Millstream process received no inspection in the 12 months preceding the incident.

Was this complacency or super confidence in the standards at the company?

Hindsight is always wonderful. To err is human. Many would criticise the Department of Agriculture for its total recall of pork products in the autumn of 2008.

In the recent German dioxin crisis, a bigger number of farms were involved but there was no recall and German product is already back on the Russian market.

The Irish recall led to a bill of more than €180m for the Irish taxpayer, with claims still not settled.

The lesson for the future is that the Department of Agriculture, and other control bodies, should carry out an intelligent risk analysis of areas of real food scare threat and concentrate their efforts on these.

This would serve everybody better than applying the heavy hand to issues like the on-farm mixing of straights, which carry no threat to the public.

Indo Farming



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