Belgian dioxin contamination traced to feed

Original source of contaminant remains a mystery; Greenpeace calls for action against emissions

Contaminated animal feed has been blamed for causing dangerously high levels of dioxins in Belgian chicken meat and eggs - a food scandal which has led to the products being banned throughout Europe and the resignation of two government ministers.

The dioxins are believed to have entered the food chain when a Belgian company supplied fats to animal feed manufacturers that contained some kind of non-animal oil as well as the animal fat commonly used in its product. The resultant animal feed was then sold to hundreds of poultry farms during the first half of this year. The director of the Gent-based company was arrested yesterday.

The Belgian public first became aware of the health risks posed by the cancer-causing contaminants at the end of last week when the government instructed shops to remove Belgian eggs and chicken from the shelves and warned consumers not to eat any such products they may have already bought. The ban spread to the entire EU today when the European Commission's veterinary committee decreed that all poultry products from the farms believed to have used the contaminated feed should be destroyed. Belgium will only be allowed to export poultry certified as coming from unaffected farms.

The health minister Marcel Colla and the agriculture minister Karel Pinxten both resigned yesterday, amid accusations that they had delayed taking action to protect public health despite knowing about the contamination for about a month. The Belgian government was similarly criticised by acting EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler who said Belgium should have informed the Commission of the problem as soon as it knew about it.

Scientists are still unsure about the origin of the dioxins. According to Ruth Stringer of Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Exeter University, the dioxins in the samples of feed, eggs and chicken meat do not match up to the most common sources of dioxin pollution such as waste incineration. In an unconnected case last year of German cows milk contaminated by dioxins the source was eventually identified as coming from feed made of Brazilian citrus pulp mixed with contaminated mineral lime (ENDS Daily 3 May).

Greenpeace has seized on this latest food scare to highlight the problem of dioxins in general. Martin Besieux of Greenpeace Belgium said governments should start to implement the principle established under the Ospar convention for protection of the North Atlantic, where 15 European countries have agreed to aim for "close to zero" emissions of man-made hazardous and radioactive substances into the marine environment by 2020 (ENDS Daily 23 July 1998). The NGO says the first step to eliminate dioxins from the environment should be to phase out incineration, followed by product substitution and clean production measures.

Follow Up:
Greenpeace Belgium, tel: +32 2 201 1944.

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