Dioxin crisis topples Belgian government

Shockwaves continue to spread as finger of suspicion points to used PCB transformer oil

Europe's worst food contamination crisis since BSE has led to a crushing election defeat for Belgium's governing coalition following Sunday's national elections. All four of the Flemish and French-speaking Socialist and Christian Democrat governing parties lost votes, while some right-wing parties and Belgium's two Green parties scored extraordinary gains that could take them into government.

In polls leading up to the election, as many as one-in-three Belgians said they planned to switch their voting intentions as a result of the food scandal, which has emptied Belgian shops of meat and milk products and led to a swathe of bans on Belgian and in some cases all EU foods all over the world.

Latest developments in the saga include a call by European agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels today for new controls on the manufacture of animal feeds. Ministers have asked the European Commission to check on current implementation of early warning systems around the EU and to propose improvements, as well as to undertake a "critical review" of the problems of meat meal and offals plus the disposal of animal carcasses.

Meanwhile, the Swiss government said today that it was restricting exports of used food oils, which are thought to be the intermediate source of the Belgian dioxin contamination. According to the Swiss environment agency, used food oils from public collection points will no longer be usable to make animal feeds. In the Netherlands, the government has indicated that tests show no traces of dioxin contamination in milk products, while the French government said yesterday that no dioxins had been found in chickens, eggs or beef.

Europe's animal feed makers' association has reacted by calling for tighter controls on the raw materials used in animal feed manufacture. The crisis has shown that "existing quality controls...have been inadequate to protect public health," according to FEFAC.

Meanwhile, the original source of the contamination that entered the food chain in Belgium now appears to be waste PCB oils, possibly illegally disposed of into food oils. According to the European chlorine industry association Eurochlor, official data from the Belgian government shows that the profile of dioxins and closely related furans found in contaminated foods are completely different from those found in combustion products and are similar to those found in PCBs.

Toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative, PCBs were banned from sale in the EU in 1985 but can continue to be used in existing electrical transformers until 2010. The chemicals are also suspected to disrupt hormone systems. Similar incidences of waste PCBs contaminating food supplies occurred in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111; Swiss environment agency, tel: +41 31 322 9311; FEFAC, tel: +32 2 285 0050; Eurochlor, tel: +32 2 676 7211. References: Web sites with information on the dioxin crisis include Belgian government, and AdValvas. Full details of Belgium's election results are at Radio et Télévision Belge.

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