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Toxic politics

by Frank Schnittger Thu Dec 11th, 2008 at 05:18:46 AM EST

The Irish Government is facing a perfect storm of economic collapse, political difficulties, and now the pork dioxin contamination scare.  

Tax receipts are collapsing and could result in a public expenditure deficit of 10% of GDP next year - even without any stimulus package to boost economic activity. Unemployment will double. Health sector cutbacks remain hugely emotive (despite a four-fold increase in public health expenditure over the past 10 years).  

The Lisbon Treaty issue appears to be moving slowly towards some kind of resolution at EU council level, although how the Irish electorate will react to a referendum re-run next year is anyone's guess.

To make matters worse the key food production sector is reeling from the dioxin contamination scare which will do untold damage to the Irish food brand and probably cost €Billions before this is all over.

front-paged by afew

To take the last issue first, the dioxin contamination is an object lesson on how vulnerable our food supply chain is to any malpractice at any stage in the process.  What appears to have happened is that a food recycling plant producing pig feed used oil in the drying process.  It claims to have bought oil of the correct grade from reputable suppliers within the Republic, but police investigations are centred around a Northern Ireland business which is supposed to store or incinerate waste electrical transformer oil under license.

Carlow firm insists it bought oil in Republic - The Irish Times - Wed, Dec 10, 2008

A Department of Agriculture/Food Safety Authority of Ireland press briefing in Dublin on Monday was told that "inappropriate" oil was used in a burner used in the heating process of waste food at Millstream Recycling in Co Carlow, which was used on 10 pig and 45 beef farms in the Republic.

The PSNI is involved with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Garda Síochána in an investigation into the source of the oil used at the plant where the contamination originated.

The Irish Times understands they are looking at a business operation in Co Tyrone where it is believed waste oil from electricity transformers, which should have been stored or incinerated under licence, may be involved.

Members of the Garda's National Bureau of Criminal Investigation are also investigating the origins of the oil and confirmed they had spoken to a number of people from the Carlow plant. It is understood they have told the officers they bought the oil legally and believed it was of a quality required for the processing of the animal feed.

The gardaí involved in the investigation have indicated their inquiries have not formally become a criminal matter and they are closely liaising with the PSNI to compare the version of accounts given by those in the Carlow plant with the version given by the suppliers in the North.

In a statement from the plant issued today, the company at the centre of the food scare said: "Millstream Recycling wishes to state that the company has only ever purchased the oil from a legitimate supplier in the Republic of Ireland

Apparently the fumes from this "inappropriate" oil were the source of trace dioxin contamination in the pig feed.  Perhaps, someone, somewhere along the line, thought they could make a few bob substituting waste oil for food grade oil but the cost will be measured in €Billions.

The political fall-out from all this is that Ireland claims to have the best system of food traceability in the world - and farmers certainly feel they are being regulated and supervised to death.  However the problem first appears to have been identified in Belgium, and, when traced back to the food recycling plant, was found to have effected only a few farms and a few processing plants.  Why then was all Irish pork - including organic pork - immediately banned from all shop shelves?

Part of the problem is that many pork products - sausages, pates etc. are composite products where traceability is lost at some stage in the process.  However the larger problem appears to have been that Ministers and their Officials lacked confidence in their own traceability system and proceeded to ban all pork.  To add insult to injury, the European Food Safety Authority has now stated that:

European food body says Irish pork is safe to eat - The Irish Times - Wed, Dec 10, 2008

There are no adverse health effects to the consumption of Irish pork contaminated with dioxins, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded.

In a statement which will provide comfort for Irish authorities and assuage the concerns of consumers, the EFSA says if a person ate an average amount of Irish pork daily since September 1st, 10 per cent of which was contaminated with the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, there would be "no concern" for human health.

In an extreme case, where someone ate a large amount of pork, 100 per cent contaminated with the highest recorded concentration of pork, the EFSA says the safety margin would be "considerably undermined".

However, since the margins for acceptable weekly intake have a 10-fold safety margin, the group says that while protection would be reduced, it would "not necessarily lead to adverse health effects

I will leave the debate as to whether any concentration of dioxins can be deemed to be safe to the experts.  Clearly the Government acted with the best possible motives in taking a "safety first" approach and banning all pork product sales until the situation was clarified.  However you can imagine the anger of organic and other farmers and processors who never used any feed from the effected pig feed recycling plant.  And at every stage of the supply chain huge costs are being incurred as customers look to return or destroy product and be refunded for it.

In fairness to the Irish food industry, there has been a huge focus on quality and traceability in recent years with a huge administrative overhead and it is understandable that those who have worked hard to achieve the highest standards will feel betrayed by the systems that have been put in place to assure quality and safeguard the industry.  It appears that the food recycling plant in question was regarded as "low risk" and only inspected very irregularly, and it is unclear whether such an inspection would have uncovered the use of "inappropriate" oil in the food heating/drying process.

The vegetarians and organic food devotees amongst us will say "I told you so" and that industrial food production methods will inevitably result in such debacles.  Certainly, current mass food production methods seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to any problem  at any point in the production chain.  I'm not sure that the mass production of pure food is possible or economic in today's very intensive and populous societies.  But we certainly have to do an awful lot better than we have done to date.

All of which brings me back to the political situation. As the Finance Minister in the previous Government, Cowen cannot escape responsibility for the failure to foresee and forestall the current crisis.  The Lisbon Referendum defeat occurred on his watch.  And now we have what appears to be a mismanaged quality assurance system for the food industry which is going to decimate Cowen's rural base.  It seems he can do nothing right and the Government parties can expect to be hammered in the June EU Parliament and Local Government elections.  

The system is broken, but confidence in the opposition is no higher.  We may not yet have riots in the street on the Greek model, but something has to give in the next few months.  Europe, after the Great Depression, experienced a period of extraordinary instability resulting, ultimately, in world war.  Obama appears to be generating new hope and momentum in the US.  Where is leadership in Europe going to come from?

Just a few things:

Here in the US, the problem is relaxed enforcement of regulations across the board, which forced one meat packer in New Jersey out of business a year ago.

The relaxation in enforcement has been right out of the republican playbook on governance, and has been since at least the Reagan administration. Vice President George H. W. Bush went to work those first dayswith a list of things the government could do to help the Big Three automakers, which these days seems sort of laughable.

Republicans would say that the free market operated as it should when Topps Meats closed and they'd be sort of right. But tell that to the handful of people who became ill and could have died.

I wish I knew more about Irish politics though, so I could place your larger point in some kind of context. So I could put faces on the players.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 11:20:10 AM EST
I wish I knew more about Irish politics though, so I could place your larger point in some kind of context. So I could put faces on the players.
I do an occasional series on Irish politics if you want to look at my back catalogue of diaries

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 11:31:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
will do, thanks!

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire
by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 11:46:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The question must be asked: What's a self-respecting Bostonian doing eating beef from Jersey? ;)


Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 01:13:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm certain the beef I eat passes thru NJ at some point :)

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire
by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Thu Dec 11th, 2008 at 09:51:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's after eating or...?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Dec 11th, 2008 at 10:29:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To make matters worse there is public shock at the shooting dead of a socially conscious member of the community by a gang of young teenagers who he apparently chased after they threw eggs at his house.  Apparently he used to host the same teenagers in his house but stopped after the neighbours complained at the noise and disruption.  Teenager suspect carried gun before row - The Irish Times - Wed, Dec 10, 2008
The local teenagers had been allowed into Mr O'Kane's home on Shelmalier Road for a period earlier this year and many shared his interest in repairing cars and motorbikes. However, local people complained to gardaí that the teenagers were drinking in the house.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 11:25:16 AM EST
European Tribune - Comments - Toxic politics
Where is leadership in Europe going to come from?

We are the change that we seek ;-)


On your diary, this seems to be a case of fraud. Industrial agriculture is obviously more vulnerable to fraud with large-scale consequences, although there are cases of fraud in organic agriculture, too. There are going to be questions about whether the monitoring system has been set up right, as you state. Certainly classifying the recycling plant as low risk seems to be a mistake, given what we know from the last dioxin scare in Belgium. Incedentally, this seems to have resulted in better monitoring there.

Mostly, though it is a matter of doing a thorough criminal investigation and throwing those who were involved in the fraud in jail, preferably for a long time, as well as confiscating their assets to idemnify to the largest extent possible those who have suffered damages as a result.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 01:45:00 PM EST
After years of Bush and decades of crap, to finally feel that things could run in the proper direction is ... I don't know the words.  If Obama starts being successful who in Europe is likely to follow his lead?  Will new politicians need to rise?  Is the establishment too far gone to change?

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 02:41:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Much of what Obama proposes to do much of Europe has been doing anyway - wind energy, greater public health provision, climate change mitigation, public transport enhancement, human rights, multi-lateral diplomacy etc.

Those leaders most complicit in the Neo-con project - Blair, Aznar have gone, but some inclined that way - Berlusconi, Sarkozi, Kaczynski, Klaus - are still in power.

The bigger problem is where we go from here - the EU is near paralysed by the Lisbon impasse and by disagreements between Merkel and just about everyone else as to how to deal with the economic crisis.

The problem is not so much with leaders as with a lack of institutional capability to provide leadership amongst such a diverse set of 27 distinct polities and little common demos or direct electoral legitimacy..

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 03:43:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm a problem solver and I don't see a solution.  Does this mean that things will have to get much worse before people compromise and make things better, or will the problem solve itself over time, or ... what?

Good to hear that the US might be trying to catch up with the sanity of Europe.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.

by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 04:05:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It mostly means that we have to boot out all the market fundies and neocons from positions of power.

If we manage to do that, we're in a position to quite possibly emerge as the dominant economic and cultural power on the planet - or at least in the Western Hemisphere.

If we don't boot them out, we're screwed. Our starting point is much better than that of the US in the early '80s, but no society can withstand a sustained onslaught of market fundamentalism for more than a couple of decades.

Europe isn't particularly special or exceptional, except inasmuch as we by the grace of good fortune have been endowed with a high-grade industrial infrastructure and strong labour unions. There is nothing inherent in European nature that prevents those things from being dismantled, just as there is nothing inherent in American nature that prevents the US from (re)building them.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Dec 13th, 2008 at 10:36:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Should I hold my breath while I wait for that to happen?  Or should I be doing something to get that to happen?

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Sat Dec 13th, 2008 at 10:46:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The chances of whoever substituted waste oil for food grade oil being caught may be reasonably high, although proving criminal intent may be a different matter.  The likelihood is that he/she will have few assets and little appreciation of what consequences could have flowed from their actions.  

The problem in today's world is that a relatively petty act can have huge consequences for very many people - and the taxpayer is their only hope for any kind of compensation.  The "markets" cannot solve the problem because even if the offending company is closed down, their is no prospect of their being able to compensate those damaged by the episode.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 03:31:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, you can have an implicit intent in criminal negligence, which I think would apply, certainly if this was a business decision. These seem to be all larger businesses, so one of them probably had the fraud motive (I don't think it was a lone worker, but you never know).
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 03:43:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As far as I am aware, the businesses concerned are quite small.

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Dec 10th, 2008 at 03:49:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another globalism "success story" spins in.
by rifek on Sun Dec 14th, 2008 at 01:45:35 PM EST
Where is leadership in Europe going to come from?

Certainly not from our three stooges namely Cowen Lenihan and Hearney.

by Asinus Asinum Fricat (patric.juillet@gmail.com) on Tue Dec 16th, 2008 at 03:41:16 PM EST

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