Britain's food Standards Agency issued a warning yesterday of a small, theoretical risk in dioxins from the funeral pyres of cattle in the foot-and-mouth epidemic. But the FSA said the "slightly elevated" risk applies only to people who buy full-fat milk directly from dairy farms within 2km (1.2 miles) of a burning pyre.
The FSA said the advice is "precautionary" until measurement of dioxin levels in this milk come through within the next few weeks. The small number of people who continue to consume full-fat milk and milk products produced directly on these farms are running "a very small additional risk to health". The agency suggested that these consumers could switch to milk or milk products from other sources, or drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, which is unaffected.
"This is highly precautionary advice for a very small number of consumers," said Sir John Krebs, chairman of the FSA. "It is for people who consume only whole milk and milk products that have come exclusively from animals near pyres."
Most people, who drink bulked milk from many sources, are unaffected by the possible dioxin risk. Milk is the principle food item where elevated dioxin levels are likely to be seen first because it will be taken by grazing cows and accumulated in the fat of their milk.
"It'll take dioxins a while to build up from the grass into the cows, into the milk," Sir John said. "If there is a build up, it will from about now on over the next few weeks."
The FSA's assessment of the risk was based on air measurements of dioxins potentially dangerous byproducts of combustion around burning pyres, as well as computer models of how the chemicals would contaminate dairy pastures. "On the basis of that work we think it's unlikely that there's going to be any elevated dioxin in the milk from animals around the pyres but we won't be sure about that until we've got the measurements we'll be taking of the milk," Sir John said.
Dioxin levels are being monitored in milk from Devon, South Wales, Anglesey, Southern Scotland and Cumbria. "We should gets samples of milk analysed in the next few weeks but to build a complete picture will take until the end of June," he said. "In the intervening period, we are giving people the information on the basis that people have a right to know what we know when we know it."
Sir John won praise from environmentalists for being so open. Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Congratulations to the FSA for beginning to live up to its promise to be an independent food safety body."
Dioxins belong to a special group of dangerous chemicals called "persistent organic pollutants" because of their ability to survive and accumulate in the environment. They are said to be carcinogens, 1,000 times more lethal than arsenic and strongly suspected of causing birth defects. They concentrate in the fatty tissues of beef and dairy cattle, poultry, pork or seafood.
Friends of the Earth believe that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) did not follow the advice of the Environment Agency in its handling of cattle disposal. "In the absence of a public inquiry, suspicions will grow that disposal methods may have been dictated more by the date of the election than by concern for public health," Mr Secrett said.
Maff insists it did consult fully with the Environment Agency.