One of the most extensive investigations of its kind into the effects on the food chain from large-scale pyres in areas such as Anglesey, Cornwall and Devon is now close to completion. About 70 milk samples, taken over a period of three months, have been tested for dioxins and PCBs and the results, with a couple of exceptions that are not thought to be linked to the pyres, are within the normal range.
Dioxins and PCBs are environmental contaminants, which have been linked to cancer in humans. Dioxins are a by-product of incineration. Animals such as cows, sheep and fish absorb these contaminants when they feed. They are then stored in the animals' fat and can enter the human food chain when these animals, or products from these animals, are consumed. Because dioxins are stored in fat, there tend to be higher concentrations of them in higher fat foods.
In May, the Agency said that people who consumed unbulked whole milk and whole milk products solely from cattle that had been grazing within 2 km of food and mouth pyres may wish to vary their source of these products until the Agency had conducted its testing programme.
Unbulked milk means milk that comes from one source. Milk and milk products sold in supermarkets and most main stores is bulked, which means milk has been collected from a number of farms and mixed at a dairy. Therefore, even if one batch of milk had higher than normal levels of dioxins, the levels would be diluted down because of the mixing process.
The Agency's advice also only applied to whole milk and whole milk products from animals that had been grazing within 2 kms of the pyres because dioxins accumulate in fat. But, in light of the reassuring test results, the Agency's earlier advice is no longer necessary.
Agency Chairman, Sir John Krebs, said:
"Most of the tests are now complete. From the tests conducted there appears to be no effect on food from foot and mouth pyres. This is particularly reassuring for areas like the South West of England and Wales where there were a lot of foot and mouth pyres.
"In May, we issued precautionary advice to people who may consume certain whole milk and whole milk products, because it was not certain what impact the foot and mouth pyres would have on the food chain. This advice only applied to a small number of consumers who were advised of what to do until the Agency had completed its investigation."
About 120 food samples, including milk, have been tested from Anglesey, Cornwall, Cumbria, Carmarthenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Northern Ireland, Devon. Other foods sampled include hen eggs, duck eggs, chickens, cheese, butter, lamb, trout, cream, ice cream. Soil and herbage has also been tested. Concentrations of dioxins and dioxin like PCBs in all samples are mostly within the normally expected ranges.
The Agency is looking into the cause of higher than expected concentrations of PCBs in eggs from a farm in Anglesey. But foot and mouth pyres are not thought to be the cause. The farmer uses the eggs for breeding purposes only, but has still been advised not to eat them.
Both dioxins and PCBs are persistent in the environment and are common at low levels in foods. Long term exposure to dioxins and PCBs can increase the risk of cancer. Studies have shown that dietary exposure to dioxins and PCBs in the UK has substantially declined over the past 20 years. The Agency continues to work towards reducing the overall dietary exposure to these chemicals.
For previous items, see 5 July 2001 and 8 August 2001