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First big test since overhaul of 'farm to fork' laws

This food contamination is the first major test in Ireland of the overhaul of EU "farm to fork" food safety legislation which began in 2002.

Legislation in that year set out the general principles of food law, including the precautionary principle, and established the European Food Safety Authority.

There was also a radical revision of EU food hygiene rules which placed primary responsibility for food safety on food establishments, while requiring the public authorities to have a control system in place to verify compliance with food law and food hygiene regulations. Animal feed mills were brought under this system of legislation on January 1, 2006.

From what we know to date, the control and traceability systems put in place appear to have worked in this instance. There has been some negative comment on the length of time it took the FSAI to confirm the presence of dioxin and to issue the product recall.

Given the costs involved in a product recall, and taking into account that there was no likelihood of immediate health ill-effects among the population -- although the presence of dioxin in foodstuffs is illegal and can be carcinogenic if consumed in quantities over a period of time -- it seems appropriate that the risk managers waited for confirmation of the test results before issuing their public alert.

Given the enormous collateral damage which contaminated animal feed can cause, it will be important to determine if the self-monitoring requirements on feed mills are as tight as they should be, and whether the public authorities' risk-based control of these systems is as frequent and as rigorous as it should be.

Questions have also been asked as to whether the FSAI over-reacted in recalling all pork products, given that it appears only nine or 10 pig farms out of the 400 in Ireland sourced contaminated feed, and given that 90pc of pigmeat is unaffected.

However, the FSAI points out that the contaminated 10pc of pigmeat has been processed (and mixed in with) approximately 80pc of total pig meat produced in Ireland.

Because it has not been possible to distinguish between potentially contaminated and non-contaminated product, all product has been removed as a precautionary measure.

Where pigmeat can be identified as not contaminated, it will be put back on the market.

The extent to which this happens will have a considerable bearing on the cost of this product recall to the industry. The other relevant factor is consumer response.

Just over half of Irish pigmeat is sold on the domestic market, while pigmeat exports last year, mainly to the UK but also to continental Europe and further afield to Russia, Japan and China, were valued at €368m.

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Evidence from previous food scares suggests that the consumer response depends significantly on their confidence and trust in the public authorities' management of the crisis.

Provided that the Irish authorities' stay on top of the crisis in the coming days, and that the problem is indeed confined to a single mill, the decisive action to date should be reassuring in this regard.

It is essential that the industry retains its customers over the next few weeks. Again, evidence from past scares suggests that price discounting can help consumers to overcome any lingering product distrust.

Given the precarious financial position of many pig producers even before the public alert notice was issued, both processors and retailers can help to support consumption by reducing their margins on pork products in the coming weeks.

Alan Matthews is professor of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin

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