Monday, December 15, 2008

Porkie pies about the dioxin threat

The recall of Irish pork products exposes the opportunism and hysteria of Ireland and Britain's food standards bodies. ("Pork pies" is Cockney rhyming slang for "lies")

If there's no problem that panicked authorities cannot turn into a crisis, then there's no crisis that indecision cannot exacerbate. So it was on Saturday afternoon that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) discovered it had just such a problem on its hands. Dioxins - the synthesis of chlorinated organic compounds formed, in this case, as a by-product of a manufacturing process - had been found at 80 to 200 times the safe `maximum level' in Irish pork products. This sounds a lot, but, as countless experts have stated, the risk to the public is virtually nil. Not only that, the culprit - an oil used by a particular animal feed producer in a machine used to dry animal feed - affected just 49 out of the Irish Republic's 400 pig farms. And of the nine linked in Northern Ireland, none currently, it has since emerged, have any pigs.

Such facts were not about to inhibit the FSAI, however. Any pork product, it decided - be it bacon, ham, sausages, white pudding or certain pizzas produced since 1 September - was to be recalled and destroyed. Whatever the response lacked in good sense it more than made up for in haste. And with the cost to the Republic's pig industry likely to be in the region of _100million, it is a decision that is likely to have a disastrous effect on Ireland's already ailing pig industry.

The response of the Food Standards Agency in the UK - a country that is the biggest single importer of Irish pork, taking around 68,000 tonnes a year - has been far more ambiguous. Its knee has certainly jerked with the same alacrity as its Irish counterpart: `The FSA is currently advising consumers not to eat pork, or products where pork is the main ingredient, that are labelled as being from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland.' (1) But despite that message, it has taken no action, leaving it to the supermarkets themselves to decide whether to keep Irish pork produce on the shelves. So while the FSA echoes FSAI's fears, it then shirks all responsibility.

The result has been sheer confusion. Newspapers have been quick to follow the authorities' panic-stricken suit. `Deadly contaminant found in Irish pork', said The Times. `Shoppers told: don't eat toxic Irish pork', informed the Daily Mail. If bald statements such as these weren't frightening enough, the Guardian went a step further by helpfully highlighting the most famous individual case of dioxin poisoning: `The scarred face of Ukranian president Viktor Yushchenko.' (2) The implication seems to be that everyone is but a string of Irish sausages away from a complexion like the surface of the moon.

But while some sections of the press have been more than happy to stoke toxic nightmares, the FSA's unwillingness to do anything drastic betrays its underlying reticence about the reality of the risks posed. So just last night, Tesco announced that it will continue stocking Irish and Northern Irish pork products regardless of the FSA's advice to consumers. This is not surprising given the FSA's own scientific experts have been at pains to emphasise just how negligible is the health risk. Professor Alan Boobis, a toxicologist at Imperial College London and an adviser to the FSA, said: `Even the levels detected in these pigs are extremely low and present no immediate cause for concern.' (3)

So just what is the health risk? The key thing to emphasise here is that the risk posed depends above all on long-term exposure. Dioxins, getting into our system through our food, are stored in body fat, and, with only a small percentage of this excreted each day, the amount gradually builds up over many, many years. The Tolerable Daily Intake, according to which the maximum level of dioxins is determined, is calculated in terms of the amount of a dioxin that experts recommend can be eaten every day over a whole lifetime without causing harm. Or as Alan Reilly of the FSAI put it, `you'd have to be eating these products containing these levels for 40 years before you'd show any signs of illness' (4). And when you take into account that the average British citizen's dioxin intake has fallen by 85 per cent since 1982, the difference some relatively dioxin-heavy pork will make right now is tiny (5).

It is unhelpful, then, that instead of keeping their heads when the FSAI were culling theirs, the FSA decided it was best to appear similarly vigilant. Far from calming anxieties, the FSA's back-covering advice merely heightened them. And if FSA officials thought the precautionary pose would appease those, like Labour MP Michael Meacher, who are intent on waging war against anything that looks like a chemical in the food chain, their inaction just confirms the food-safety zealots' worst suspicions (6). But that is what happens when you foster a climate in which porkies about Irish pork can appear perfectly plausible.


Turn the heat on a cold: Warmed-up fruit cordial really does ease your sniffles

Granny was right. A nice hot fruit drink really can help you overcome the misery of colds, claim researchers. It turns out the tender loving care traditionally dispensed to relieve sniffles and sore throats has its basis in science. A steaming mug of fruit cordial not only tastes nice but actually helps reduce the symptoms of common colds and flu, compared with a cooler drink.

The common cold strikes 930,000 Britons, on average, on any day in winter, with levels of sickness already starting to climb rapidly as Christmas approaches. Experts at Cardiff University's Common Cold Centre carried out what they believe is the first scientific research of its kind into non-medical remedies. They compared the effects of a commercially produced apple and blackcurrant cordial drunk either hot or at room temperature by 30 volunteers with common cold symptoms. And they found that the hot version provided 'immediate and sustained relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness and tiredness'.

The study was published in the December edition of the clinical journal Rhinology. Centre director Professor Ron Eccles said: 'With temperatures falling, cold viruses love this time of year. A bottle of fruit cordial in the cupboard could help fight off the symptoms. The big advantage of this type of treatment is that it is cheap as well as safe and effective.' He said the advantage of hot fluids is a soothing effect.

Little research has been carried out into 'old wives' remedies' for colds, but research last year showed the herbal remedy echinacea is effective. Taking supplements of the plant also known as purple coneflower cut the chances of catching a cold by more than half and when used as a treatment reduced the length of a cold by one and a half days on average, according to the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. Zinc lozenges can also help shorten the duration of symptoms, says the Common Cold Centre, but most people will not benefit from large doses of vitamin C to ward off colds.

Professor Eccles said it was worth trying to reduce the impact of a cold by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, taking exercise and smiling to cut stress levels.


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