Page last updated at 17:40 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Pork scare stirs the memory

By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI Consumer Affairs Correspondent

pork scratchings
The pork scare has sparked memories of other threats to the food industry

It can only happen in a food scare.

Standing in front of camera in a supermarket getting ready to proclaim that it is all over and that pork is back on the menu and then the talkback crackles into life and the producer says some beef herds have tested positive.

Memories stream back of BSE and of how things were in the days following the health minister Stephen Dorrell's announcement in March 1996 that the cattle brain disease may have implications for human health.

It seemed utterly unbelievable at the time government was saying that beef may not be safe to eat.

I can remember at the time some journalistic colleagues said it would be a three day wonder, but of course BSE changed many things, one of which was the emergence of food safety agencies in regions, at national and EU level.

Never again would the food industry be allowed to inflict such an injury on the consuming public and instead of a government department focused on farmers and the business of agriculture, food and the auditing of the food chain would be the principal business of civil servants.

Fast forward more than 12 years and consumers may wonder has much really changed?

Surely the emergence of the food agencies would mean a fast and coordinated response to an issue like dioxin in animal feed.

The news broke on a Saturday afternoon in Dublin, but amazing as it may seem, while pork was being cleared off the shelves there in a matter of hours, it would be a full 24 hours before Northern Ireland consumers were being advised on what to do.

So, ok, they were caught flat footed because it was a weekend, but surely after a slow start a devolved government in Northern Ireland would wheel into motion?

Think back to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Who couldn't have been impressed by the fast, decisive action of the department of agriculture at that time?

Under minister Brid Rodgers, the ports were shut to livestock and meat imports. Much to the annoyance of London, Northern Ireland took matters into its own hands.

Sunday brunch

The handling of the dioxin scare does not compare well, not yet at least.

Consumers in Northern Ireland were still buying pork for Sunday brunch oblivious to the fact that south of the border, retailers had cleared all pork produce from their shelves.

And what of retailers in Northern Ireland? On Monday morning, butchers' shops opened for business, still not knowing what was required of them. Supermarkets too say they were operating in an information vacuum.

So what went wrong? Well, the timing may not have been favourable, but the health minister Michael McGimpsey says he wasn't told anything until Sunday lunctime.

It is a matter he will be taking up with the agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew.

Then there was the confusion. How many farms in Northern Ireland had received contaminated feed? The first figure was nine. Then it was six and then it was an unknown number, as the feed had also been delivered to wholesalers who had delivered it on to other farmers.

Tuesday morning dawned with an altogether brighter outlook. The news now from the Food Standards Agency was that no local pig farms had received feed from the contaminated source. Pig farmers celebrated as their produce went back on shelves and slaughtering recommenced.

That was when the talkback crackled with the news on beef farms south of the border testing positive.

As I eat bacon, egg and chips in a cafe, another memory comes back of foot and mouth, the missing sheep. The ones imported along with the infected consignment from Scotland. They never were found. At the time it seemed a vital issue.

Fast forward to the dioxin scare and a press conference at Stormont has been called.

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