Monday, December 08, 2008

Why did I throw away my ham?

We hit the panic button yesterday. And, by we, I mean everyone living in Ireland. We were told to throw away all our Irish pork products and we did. We did this even though we were reassured that there was no real health scare risk in having eaten potentially contaminated pork/ham/etc. We were advised to throw away all such products bought since September 1.

When I first heard this I almost thought it was a joke. I mean, how much pig meat have I already eaten since September 1? Loads, but don't worry because there's little health risk. So, why do I have to throw away the ham and pork chops that are still in my fridge? Surely if there's little to worry about after 3 months of eating the stuff, one or two more portions are hardly going to matter. Right? Or not?

This has been bothering me for the past 24 hours. Finally, I think I understand. This drastic measure has virtually nothing to do with the consumers' health and all to do with the pig meat industry. The dire warnings to convince us to dispose of (almost) perfectly good meat - unless we're being lied to about the risks - were to reassure us that when we return to the supermarket or butcher that the pork or ham we buy is 100% top of the line, nothing to be concerned about.

I didn't come to this revelation by myself. I had to be practically hit over the head by Dr. Patrick Wall, formerly of the Irish Food Safety Authority and former Chairman of the European Food Safety Authority. Dr. Wall was on Liveline and he first laid out the case for how low the risk to consumers is and then explained why the meat had to be recalled.

The government basically was afraid repeating Belgium's 1999 chicken problem. In that case the Belgian government played the whole thing down and waited a long time to reveal what it knew, feeding the fear when the story first broke. Their poultry industry was badly hit.

The Irish government was determined not to duplicate that experience. Ireland is a big exporter of food, which makes this sort of scare even more damaging potentially. So, they hit the nuclear button. I don't know why they couldn't explain that the food was contaminated, but could be safely eaten if you really wanted to. Instead, we were all encouraged to throw €10, €20, €30 worth of food away. And, throwing food away drives me nuts. I could have eaten those last few slices of ham.