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Dioxin-like PCBs in pork from Ireland

26/2008, 07.12.2008

Recall by Irish authorities to avert health hazards for consumers in Europe

According to the latest information from the European Rapid Alert System, levels of up to 292 µg/kg polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected in pork products from Ireland. As this constitutes a major exceeding of the maximum admissible levels in the samples examined, the Irish government has recalled these foods. This incident was notified to the German authorities through the European Rapid Alert System for Food. "Germany is currently examining whether and, if so, on what scale Irish pork has been imported in order to remove it, on precautionary grounds, from the market here too", says the President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "At all events the European Rapid Alert System and the close contacts amongst the Member States guarantee a high level of safety for consumers in Europe".

The use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has been banned in Germany since 1989. Any PCBs that can still be detected in the environment, can reach food from there. They accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans. The group of polychlorinated aromatic biphenyls encompasses about 200 substances. Amongst other things, they can damage the immune system and the central nervous system. Some of the compounds have dioxin-like structures and effects. The action of other polychlorinated biphenyls has no or scarcely any similarity with dioxins and they are, therefore, called non-dioxin-like PCBs. Consumers may take up these compounds from fat-containing food of animal origin like milk, meat, eggs and fish. In this case the PCBs probably reached the animals from contaminated feed.

The latest PCB levels measured in Irish pork products are far higher than those normally caused by customary background contamination via the environment. Consumption of these foods can lead to the tolerable daily intake (TDI), established by the World Health Organisation (WHO), being temporarily exceeded to a major degree. Bearing in mind the data currently available, BfR’s initial assessment is that there is no direct health threat from short-term exposure for consumers in Germany. However, health impairment resulting from prolonged exposure to high levels of PCB-containing pork products cannot be ruled out. These foods are not, therefore, suitable for consumption and must be removed from the food chain.

BfR is currently evaluating the available data and is in close contact with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Together with the food industry and food control, an adequate database is to be created for extensive risk assessment.

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