"We're actually reeling in shock at the moment at the scale of this disaster," Tim Cullinan, an official with the Irish Farmers Association and a pig farmer, told Irish state radio RTE. "It couldn't have come at worse time, the weeks leading up to Christmas. ... It's a nightmare, to be honest," he said.
Ireland's Food Safety Authority said the dioxin made its way into the food chain after pig feed from a producer was tainted with industrial oil. While only 10 percent of the country's pig meat was affected, that was processed and mixed in with other meat, resulting in widespread contamination.
RTE reported that Millstream Power Recycling Ltd. in southeast Ireland was suspected of being the source of the contamination. The company said it was cooperating with authorities but would not comment further, citing legal reasons.
Sky News television footage showed Irish shop shelves being stripped bare of pork steaks, gammon - even pepperoni pizzas. On Sunday the crisis spread to the U.K. as the government of Northern Ireland announced that nine farms in the province had used the same tainted feed.
Authorities have said they hope to get fresh pork back on the shelves within days.
Dr. Tony Holohan, the Irish Department of Health's chief medical officer urged people not to purchase or consume pork products, but stressed the move was precautionary.
"We're not anticipating significant health effects," he told RTE. His comments were echoed by Britain's Food Standards Agency, which said it did not see any significant risk to British consumers.
Ireland's farms produce more than 3 million pigs a year, nearly half of which are consumed within the Republic of Ireland. But Irish pork also is heavily exported to neighboring Northern Ireland and Britain - and appears in grocery stores and processed meats through much of Europe and Asia.
Germany's ministry for consumer protection said Sunday it has called on wholesalers and supermarkets to pull any Irish pork from their shelves, but said it was too early to say how much meat was involved. Similar warnings were issued by other European bodies.
The U.K. arm of discount supermarket chain Lidl said it was recalling Irish-made black pudding and pork bellies as a precaution. Other British grocers said they were also checking their stocks.
Dioxins are contaminants that typically result from industrial combustion and other chemical processes. Exposure to dioxins at high levels is linked to increased incidence of cancer, although experts said there was unlikely to be any immediate cause for concern in this case.
"These compounds take a long time to accumulate in the body, so a relatively short period of exposure would have little impact on the total body burden," said toxicologist Alan Boobis at London's Imperial College. "One would have to be exposed to high levels for a long period of time before there would be a health risk."
Associated Press Writers across Europe contributed to this report. ---
On the Net:
Food Safety Authority of Ireland, http://www.fsai.ie/about/index.asp