Food Contamination Scare: Report Claims German Company Knew of Dioxin for Weeks

More than 4,700 farms have been temporarily closed in Germany as a result of a feed contamination scare. On Friday, officials in one German state said samples taken from the company at the center of the investigation indicated contamination with the carcinogen dioxin as far back as March.

German officials have started closing more than 4,700 farms as a result of this week's contamination scandal involving the carcinogenic chemical dioxin. Zoom
REUTERS

German officials have started closing more than 4,700 farms as a result of this week's contamination scandal involving the carcinogenic chemical dioxin.

State officials in Germany have found that animal feed discovered this week to have been polluted by industrial oil has apparently been in circulation longer than previously reported.

Germany has been shocked by the food tainting scandal, which has spread to 13 different German states and could have affected neighboring countries. At issue is dioxin, a known cancer-causing agent, which has been found at high levels in eggs and is feared be in poultry and pork coming from farms that used feed polluted by the toxin.

A spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein confirmed on Friday a report in the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that a private laboratory discovered twice the amount of legally permitted dioxin in a test, taken in March, of animal feed from the firm Harles & Jentzsch, which is at the center of the scandal. The ministry first learned of that violation on Dec. 27, the report stated.

The newspaper reported that the animal feed company had commissioned the test on its own accord but did not share the findings with state authorities. The state's feed monitoring agency in the city of Uetersen seized the sample on Dec. 29 and turned it over to public prosecutors. A spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry told the newspaper that there had been other irregularities discovered during the company's own inspections since March, which are also being investigated.

Thousands of Farms Closed

The Federal Agricultural and Consumer Protection Ministry in Berlin announced Friday that a total of 4,709 farms have been temporarily closed in Germany, and have banned from selling meat or eggs as a result of the contamination scare. European Union officials have reported that eggs contaminated in the scandal have been exported to Britain and the Netherlands for use in the production of food. In South Korea, government officials moved on Friday to block imports of German pork and poultry products.

Most of the farms feared to have been supplied with the contaminated feed are located in the western state of Lower Saxony. A total of 4,468 companies have been affected, with a large number of those being hog farms. The ministry said the decision to close the farms was purely a precautionary measure. "Even if part of the first tests didn't show anything unusual, the preventative protection of public health takes absolute priority," ministry officials said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the European Commission said on Thursday night it did not believe that the levels of dioxin found pose health risks to humans. Dioxins are created by burning waste or in other industrial processes and are known carcinogens.

Although it remains unclear how the dioxin ended up in the animal feed, investigators believe that dioxin-tainted industrial oils were accidentally mixed in with fat used for animal feed at Harles & Jentzsch. On Thursday, the company denied rumors it was threatened with insolvency because of the contamination scandal.

In response to the issue, German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), has called for stricter regulations across Europe to ensure the protection of the food chain. Her ministry issued a statement saying she had spoken with the European Union's consumer protection minister, John Dalli, about the need for binding EU standards to isolate toxic materials. "Companies that produce fat for animal feed should not be producing materials on the same premises for the technical industry," Aigner said.

Dioxin 10 Times the Permitted Level

Independent tests have confirmed high levels of dioxin in Harles & Jentzsch's products. In nine of 20 tests at the company, dioxin levels exceeded the highest permitted value of 0.75 nanograms, the state Agriculture Ministry in Schleswig-Holstein has reported.

According to the ministry, the highest level found was 10.05 nanograms, 10 times the legal limit. The ministry said that the nine samples "were not suited for the production of animal feed because it exceeded the maximum permitted yield," the ministry said. The test samples were collected by the company.

The German federal government is reporting that up to 150,000 tons of feed for chickens, turkey and swine have been contaminated with the toxin. The fat provided by Harles & Jentzsch had been mixed into products made by 25 different feed manufacturers.

But Aigner, the federal agriculture minister, said that, so far, there is no knowledge of any health impact on consumers. On Thursday, officials in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate also discovered 500 eggs at a company that had received a delivery of dioxin-contaminated feed, broadening the scandal to 13 German states. In Hesse, young swine have been found that had consumed contaminated feed. There is also evidence that dioxin-contaminated goods reached the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

In Bavaria, eggs seized by authorities have tested positive for dioxin contamination. Contaminated feed was also sent to farms with laying hens and hogs in the states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia.

The scandal broke in Germany on Monday, and farmers are now demanding an estimated €40 million ($52 million) to €60 million ($78.1 million) in compensation for each week they are affected by the contamination.

Food contamination issues are particularly sensitive in Europe, where memories are still fresh of the spread of mad cow disease and problems with foot and mouth disease.

dsl -- with wires

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