Germany investigates criminal origin of dioxin contamination

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The dangers of the recent dioxin-contaminated eggs, which originated from Germany, were again downplayed by the European Commission today (7 January). But Germany announced it was now investigating whether the contamination, which is now of European proportions, is of criminal origin.  

After highly toxic dioxin was found in German poultry and hogs on 23 December, German consumers were warned of potential product contamination. The Commission said it had asked Germany to report on developments.

Over 4,700 farms were closed, and it is estimated that the agricultural industry is losing as much as €60,000 per week over the scare.

The contamination was due to animal feed that had been tainted with oils meant for industrial use. The feed was distributed from Schleswig-Holstein to farms in several German Länder.

German consumer protection groups advised against consuming fresh eggs until further information was available. While it is unclear if poultry and pork meat might be affected, the German press now also warns about the potential contamination of milk.

The Agricultural Ministry of Schleswig-Holstein announced that industrial oils had been used for animal feed production for several months. It is therefore possible that consumers absorbed higher levels of dioxin.

This is particularly significant, as the toxin takes a long time to be rejected by the human body and can accumulate in humans and animals. It has been shown to contribute to higher cancer rates and to affect pregnant women.

German liquid eggs have since been exported to the UK and the Netherlands and used for cakes and quiches. In the Netherlands, a number of frozen eggs have been seized and are currently being analysed. The results are expected to emerge at the beginning of next week.

Despite the reassuring messages, consumers in several European countries are uncertain what is still safe to eat.

The Commission is downplaying the risk of contamination due to the wide distribution of affected products throughout the market. This should make it very unlikely for any one consumer to have absorbed dangerous levels of toxins, a spokesman said today.

At the moment, he continued, only the German authorities were investigating the scandal. They are to report back to the Commission. It is still unclear whether the contamination was due to human error or criminal intent.

Currently, however, it is suspected that some companies had been aware of the contamination since March 2010 and had failed to inform the authorities. Investigations are ongoing.

Yesterday (6 January), EU Health Commissioner John Dalli and German Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner discussed the crisis over the phone.

According to the German Ministry of Consumer Protection, both Aigner and Dalli were in favour of finding an EU-wide regulation in order to prevent future crises of this kind.

Issues such as introducing stricter rules to govern the production of animal feed, such as stringent separation of oils used for technical and consumption purposes, have reportedly been discussed. Further expert discussions are expected as early as Wednesday.

On 15 October 2010 the European Commission adopted its third progress report on the EU's Dioxin Strategy. Its overall objective is to develop an integrated approach in order to reduce the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in the environment as well as in feed and food.

To deal with cases of food contamination, the EU put in place in 2002 a Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

Last year, the Commission took measures to avoid dairy imports from Italy, after reports about dioxin-contaminated mozzarella cheese.

In 1999 Belgium suffered dioxin contamination, which led to the resignation of the Dehaene government.

  • From 10 Jan.: Expected results of the analyses of the frozen liquid eggs that were exported to the Netherlands and used for cakes and quiches for the UK and Dutch market.
  • 12 Jan: EU experts meet to discuss if new legislation is needed to prevent other dioxine contaminations from happening.

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