Irish Cows Test Positive for Cancer-Causing Toxin; Beef Exports to Continue

Irish officials confirmed Tuesday that cattle at three farms have tested positive for dioxin — the cancer-causing chemical that has contaminated its pork industry — but insisted the country's beef posed no real risk to health.

Ireland has already ordered the withdrawal and destruction of all pork products produced since Sept. 1, a sweeping move the government says should reinforce — not undermine — international confidence in Ireland's food exports.

But Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith said the government decided not to recall any Irish beef products at home or abroad because, unlike the contamination of pork products, the level and extent of dioxin found so far in cattle is much lower.

Smith said the cattle with excessive dioxin levels were "technically noncompliant, but not at a level that would pose any public health concern." Still, he said Ireland would prevent the movement of any cattle or beef from the three farms in question.

Alan Reilly, deputy director of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, stressed that the dioxin levels found in the most contaminated cattle were just two to three times European Union safety limits, whereas pigs at nine dioxin-threatened Irish farms recorded dioxin levels 80 to 200 times too high.

"There's a huge difference between 200 times above a legal limit, and two to three times," Reilly said.

The government declined to say whether any cattle from the three farms had produced beef that went to foreign markets. Reilly said most of the beef produced since September was still in storage, being aged to improve its tenderness and taste.

A recall of Irish beef would do even greater damage to Ireland's recession-hit economy than its emergency shutdown Saturday of the pork industry. Ireland has 69,000 beef farms but just 400 pig farms.

Ireland exports 85 percent of its beef to about 35 other countries, chiefly in Europe, a trade valued at more than $2.2 billion. Irish pork generates only a third as muect cattle farms.

International research shows that dioxins, a family of chemicals that can accumulate and be retained for years in body fat, can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Irish authorities, however, point to Europe's last major dioxin scare — in Belgium in May 1999, when thousands of farms were closed after dioxin-contaminated animal feed tainted meat, eggs and dairy products — to show that short-term exposure should not pose a risk.

"We're dealing in broad terms with the same exposure levels as in Belgium, where the follow-up showed no impact on public health," said Ireland's chief medical officer, Dr. Tony Holoran.

He stressed that, even if anyone ate both the dioxin-tainted beef or pork daily for the past three months, it still wouldn't be enough to cause a health problem.

"The risks are extremely low from any exposure that may occur. People do not need to seek any direct medical advice. We do not expect to see symptoms occurring as a result of this," Holoran said.