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Pigs crisis is a good time to rethink production process

I once had a reasonably serious Jewish boyfriend, and in a woefully unproductive bid to prompt him to propose I would suggest converting to Judaism. "After all, most of what is in Christianity was first in Judaism," I'd reason.

"Ah," he'd tease, "but you'd never do without your rashers, would you?" Or sausages. Or black pudding. Or salami. Or ham sandwich. Or tender belly of pork with the crackling so crispy and sweet. Or bacon and cabbage. Or, indeed, anything from the flesh of the pig, which I consider to be the most toothsome of all meats. But for the pig, I could almost go vegetarian, for I wouldn't care if I never saw another rubbery chicken or indigestible steak. But the rasher! Oh, the rasher!

Jewish orthodoxy -- and Islam, too -- forbade pork, which in desert conditions was known to be vulnerable to disease and contamination. You would think, though, that in modern conditions of refrigeration and health and safety regulation, that pigmeat could be ensured to be pure. But now here's the catastrophe for pig farmers of a total recall of all Irish pork products, exporting all over the world.

Britain alone buys 68,000 tons of Irish pork a year, and in British supermarkets, Irish products are often very visibly labelled "Irish", with the understanding that they are safe -- since Ireland was so successful in keeping free from Foot and Mouth Disease and BSE.

In one sense, the very public recall of Irish pork products is a measure of health and safety regulations working effectively. Far better to take this action when the dioxin polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is detected -- however small the risk -- than run the risk of a worse outcome.

In the long run, the knowledge that the products are being properly monitored imparts confidence to the international market. And yet, some of the contamination problem arises not despite modern conditions -- but even possibly because of them. All Irish pigs are now slaughtered and processed in the same processing plants: the concentration of the product in one system of factory farming must, by definition, enhance the chances of cross-contamination.

By the same token, pigs (like other farm animals) are now fed on a diet of processed animal feed. Indeed, as a bacon consumer, one of my gripes about modern bacon is the reduction in taste that follows from this mass animal feed. To me, Danish bacon tastes of fish: because Danish pigs are fed on fish feeds. Much supermarket bacon tastes of very little indeed, because of the processed feedstuff.

It is nostalgic, perhaps, to hark back to my childhood, when a rasher of bacon tasted the way it should do: fatty and salty, yes, but bursting with taste and flavour. An aunt of mine in Limerick would buy rashers and sides of bacon from a farm outlet where the pigs were fed on slops of porters and potato and apple peelings; when the swine, bless them, would wander around the pigsty to their hearts' content, rolling happily in the mud when the urge took them. That was real food, and real bacon (and sausages) which produced a standard of taste you could never achieve with modern methods of farming.

Latterly, I might add, I have found it harder and harder to purchase bacon or ham which I consider to be up to standard. Very few hotels in Ireland -- or elsewhere -- know how to cook breakfast bacon. Either it is pink and dangerously underdone, or, if requested crispy, it is hard and leathery, being placed in front of you with those doom-laden words -- "be careful, the plate is very hot" (always a sign that something has just been re-heated in the microwave). Is the general lack of know-how about the cooking of bacon in any way related to the problems now facing the pig industry?

Well, maybe this crisis will trigger a bit of a re-think about the production and consummation of bacon products. If we had better standards about taste, cooking and presentation of pork products, we might pay more attention to the way pigs are raised, the connection between the rearing and the taste -- and thus, in the end, to health. The only bacon I know of that I would personally recommend today is genuinely organic and with the local source identified. Yes, it is a little more expensive, but not dramatically so.

In the long run, we must go on consuming bacon and pork products, and not be panicked into a prohibition against the meat of the pig. As soon as the shops are restocked, we should start purchasing Irish pork again. No one has yet fallen ill, and some experts have compared the risk of developing cancer from the level of dioxin with the risk of smoking one cigarette, once in a lifetime.

The pig has played his role in Irish history, and during the years of hunger and want, often provided poor people with their only source of meat protein.

It was Frederick Engels, who, in his tome "The Condition of the English Working Class" launched the legend of the Irish poor sleeping with their pigs in the emigrant hovels of Salford. If they did, it was because they valued what the pig provided, and we should continue to honour Curly Wee and his meat, which at its best is still unsurpassable.