Nearly 200,000 pounds of Chilean chicken is being recalled in the United States for dioxins only because the levels found violate Chile’s domestic limits, according to federal food safety officials.
In other words, the 126,000 pounds of chicken currently being held at the border is there only because Chile recalled it, not because the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks it’s a public health risk. In fact, when the same dioxin levels are found in U.S. product, it does not spark a domestic recall, according to Dan Engeljohn, Assistant Administrator of the Office of Field Operations at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Although we would likely not have recalled this same product for that level, we made the determination, based on their decision to recall the product, that it is adulterated,” Engeljohn told Food Safety News.
Dioxins are toxic environmental contaminants that are both naturally occurring, from wild fires and volcanic eruptions, but also the result of industrial activities and waste incineration.
When FSIS issued a press release over the weekend informing the public about the Chilean recall, the agency did not say at what level dioxins had been found in Chile, only stating that the agency had “determined that the risk to consumers is negligible.” The agency also said it is tracking down some 62,000 pounds of the product that did enter the U.S.
Dr. David Goldman, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Health Science at FSIS, told Food Safety News on Tuesday that Chilean health authorities found 5.1 picograms per kilogram (pg/kg) in their tests, which he said is only “slightly above” Chile’s maximum residue limit (MRL) of 3.5 pg/kg.
The U.S. doesn’t have an MRL for dioxins in meat and poultry products. Instead, FSIS has developed what the agency calls “trigger values.” For chicken, that level is 4 pg/kg, which means that anything found above that would trigger an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA would collect environmental and feed samples for analysis, but there would not be a recall, according to Engeljohn. Instead, health officials would try and pinpoint where the exposure was coming from — be it contaminated feed or a coating on part of the building — and reduce or eliminate it.
Every five years FSIS conducts a survey to estimate the levels of dioxins and other toxic pollutants, like PCBs, in meat and poultry products. Since the mid-1990s when the testing began, the levels found have dropped 20 to 80 percent for turkey, chicken and pork, have stayed relatively even for beef, and overall are considered to be safe, according to the 2008 dioxin report. The drop is likely due to tighter controls on dioxin pollution, including restrictions on certain herbicides and a ban on using clay as a binder for certain feeds (the clay was sometimes contaminated with dioxins).
The government is in the middle of collecting data for its 2013 report on dioxins in meat and poultry. While the project is still in progress, Dr. Goldman said the preliminary results continue that trend.
Asked to respond to the questions raised by Food & Water Watch on Monday, FSIS officials told Food Safety News there was no lag time between the dioxin recall in Chile. Officials were alerted to a potential problem based on preliminary test results on July 17, but did not receive confirmation about the test results or notice about the recall until the day before issuing a notification on Saturday. (The lag time on Chile’s end was likely due to the fact that its test results were confirmed by a lab in the Netherlands, according to FSIS.)
The agency also defended not issuing a public health alert or formal recall, saying experts at FSIS have determined there is no significant public health risk based on the levels Chile is reporting.
Since there are no MRLs set for dioxins, FSIS determines what will put consumers at risk on a case by case basis.
According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of human exposure to dioxins — linked to cancer, reproductive and development problems, among other ailment — is from food. Animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, and dairy products are the biggest contributors to human dioxin exposure as animals accumulate the compounds, mostly in their fat.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN’s global food standards setting body, has established a provisional tolerable monthly intake (PTMI) of 70 pg/kg per month. “This level is the amount of dioxins that can be ingested over lifetime without detectable health effects,” according to WHO.