FAO wants strict monitoring of meat supplies

by Jorge Pina

Rome, Jun 10 -- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called on its 175 member states to strictly monitor meat supplies in order to prevent crises such as the recent contamination by dioxin of Belgian beef.

The cancer risk from eating animal products contaminated with dioxin is another clear warning that livestock foods have a direct impact on human food quality and safety, FAO says.

The Rome-based agency says that recent meat contamination problems in Europe share the same origins as the 1996 outbreak in Britain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease."

Health experts believe that consumption of beef from cattle with BSE may cause a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease found in humans.

The FAO pressured its members and the EU to take immediate measures to ensure the safety and quality of food intended for human consumption.

The organisation has put together a draft set of regulations for animal feed, with a series of steps to help prevent contamination.

The regulations are being studied by a joint commission comprised of FAO officials and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to establish international standards.

The draft establishes safety procedures for the supply, handling, manufacture, storage and distribution of commercially produced feed for meat-producing animals.

The document also provides guidelines for global management of production, handling of ingredients prior to production, storage and distribution. The guidelines were drawn up by experts working with the FAO who met in March 1997 to discuss livestock feed supplies.

The FAO warned that in addition to BSE and dioxin, other substances can contaminate food sources, including agricultural and industrial chemicals, disease-carrying microbes, veterinary pharmaceutical residues and heavy metals.

The Codex Alimentarius FAO/WHO Committee for Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC) has met on several occasions to debate establishing an acceptable limit of dioxin contamination in animal feed, but at its most recent meeting in March, the group decided to request more extensive information before making a recommendation.

At the time, it requested that committee members gather information on dioxin contaminated cattle feed, fish food and fish oils.

Dioxin tends to be absorbed into the fatty tissues of animals and humans, and is carcinogenic for several animal species, and accumulates in higher proportions through the food chain. It is not commercially produced but is derived from certain chemical and industrial processes.

The chemical contaminates soil and water supplies, normally at low levels, and is extremely difficult to eliminate by either chemical or biological means. Because of its characteristic of accumulating in fatty tissues over time, there are no "safe" levels.

The FAO exhorted its members to work on containing dioxin contamination at its current low levels, while recognising that it is impossible to completely eliminate dioxin from food supplies.

Meanwhile in Geneva, after repeated prodding from the media, the World Health Organization put a fact sheet on dioxins and their effect on human health.

How can risks to consumers be estimated from consumption of food products contaminated with dioxins?

The WHO press release was both vague and slightly obfuscating for ordinary consumer.

Risk, it said, must be calculated on a case by case basis, taking into account the levels of exposure and population sub-groups affected. Accurate information about of dioxin in the food, amount of contaminated food consumed, and the duration of exposure to dioxin is needed to assess the actual risk of exposure. With this information in hand, an assessment of the health impact can be performed and used as a basis for policy decisions, the WHO said.

A Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) has been recommended as a tool for long-term safety assessment. The TDI is calculated on the basis of exposure over a life-time and the accumulated amount of dioxins in the body.

The WHO fact sheet said that 90% of human exposure to dioxins is through food supply, and hence protecting the food supply is critical. Contamination, it noted, could occur at any point from "farm to table", and good controls and practices during the entire range of primary production through processing, distribution and sale are essential. Food contamination monitoring systems must be in place to ensure that tolerance levels are not exceeded and when incidents of contamination are suspected, countries should have contingency plans to identify, detain and dispose of unsafe food.

Although other methods are being investigated, incineration is the best way to destroy dioxins. But solid waste incinerators are the worst culprits in dioxin release into the atmosphere due to incomplete combustion. For proper incineration and destruction, the process needs high temperatures of over 800 degrees celsius, and for disposing off large quantities, 1000 degrees or more are required. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).