Page last updated at 01:02 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Pork scare cooking up a crisis

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

Empty supermarket shelves
Supermarket shelves have been stripped of Irish-bred pork
Retailers have removed pork bred in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic from sale amid concerns about toxin contamination. So, what next for farmers?

It's been dubbed the "Christmas crisis" and the Irish pig industry faces a miserable New Year.

Of all the times for there to be a food scare surrounding pork, the festive period is easily the worst.

"This is supposed to be our harvest time," said one pig farmer, as he contemplated an immediate future in which Irish pork was deemed damaged goods.

It might be only in the short-term but the lesson from previous food scares is that even the best agricultural reputations take a long time to repair.

In farm parlance, mud thrown is ground lost.

Farmers are being affected on both sides of the Irish border.

Ireland's multimillion-euro pig industry could lose 100,000 animals, thousands of jobs and countless customers.

The suspected contaminated pig meal originated in the South but it may have been used by some farms in the North. Tests are continuing.

The quicker we can prove that the Northern Ireland product is safe to eat - the less damage will be done
Norman Robson

In the meantime, slaughtering has been put on hold.

Norman Robson, from Doagh in Co Antrim, has over 300 sows, and sells around 160 pigs a week.

He says the contamination scare has been damaging.

"Unless this clears up, very clearly it's going to have a major impact. "

However, consumer confidence may already have been hit.

"The quicker we can prove that the Northern Ireland product is safe to eat, the less damage will be done."

Across Belfast, Dublin and many other cities, Irish pork is now off the menu.

Big supermarkets removed the products from their shelves, butchers put the meat into cold storage and in one east Belfast cafe, pea and ham soup simply became pea soup.

The nightmare scenario is that the scare extends beyond pork and into the beef market.

The Irish countryside is buzzing with rumours and counter rumours. So, what's the truth?

Dire consequences

BBC Northern Ireland's agriculture correspondent Richard Wright says the suspect pig feed was also fed to some cattle but there is no need to panic.

"Carcasses from the Republic have been tested and the hope is that they will show no evidence of the dioxins," he said.

"This is because any levels would have been low - and because the animals would eat small amounts of grain.

"After a meeting with the Food Standards Agency, the president of the Meat Exporters Association said they are confident it will be a case of business as usual for the beef industry."

So when will the Irish pork industry return to normal?

No-one knows for sure. Even if it happens soon, this damaging episode will leave a bad taste in the mouth.

At a time of recession, anything that hits consumer confidence can have dire consequences.

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