The discovery of dioxin-contaminated pork in Germany has led to the culling of pigs and heightened concerns about food safety across Europe. Newspaper editorialists in Germany are calling for better tracking systems and an increase in government vigilance to ensure that the food we buy is safe.
Germany's food safety scandal widened this week after high levels of dioxin were found in pigs intended for food for the first time on Tuesday. Hundreds of pigs are to be slaughtered in a bid to contain a scare which is weighing on consumer confidence in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The dioxin levels found in the pigs exceeded the legal limit by 50 percent.
News of the tainted meat prompted China on Wednesday to halt imports of German pork and eggs. The decision came on the heels of a similar step taken by South Korea last week.
German officials said they cannot rule out that the dioxin-tainted pork may have been sold in supermarkets. Officials from the state of Lower Saxony said it was possible that the meat went to consumers before the scandal surfaced. Pork represents two-thirds of all of the meat consumed in Germany.
The farm which produced the contaminated pork was among 4,700 that were banned from selling food last week. The scandal stemmed from the sale of up to 150,000 tons of potentially dangerous animal feed to farms across the country, mostly for poultry and pigs.
Before the pork was shown to contain over-the-limit levels of dioxin, only eggs and three chickens had been confirmed to be contaminated, the German Agriculture Ministry said in a statement. Of the closed farms, all but 490 had been given the all-clear to resume selling their products on Tuesday.
The health scare began on Jan. 3, when authorites reported that dioxin-contaminated feed had been given to hens and pigs. The discovery led to the destruction of some 100,000 eggs and the culling of some 9,000 chickens. It also emerged that as much as 150,000 tons of feed pellets for poultry and swine had been distributed across Germany that included industrial fats that had been contaminated with dioxin. Officials have repeatedly insisted that the levels of dioxin, which is mostly found in the fatty tissue of animals, did not pose a risk to human health. However, high levels of the toxin have been linked with an increased cancer risk.
In response to the scare, the European Commission has warned it may need new rules for the animal feed industry. Earlier this week, officials with the European Union executive told reporters they had held a "disappointing" meeting with industry representatives because "no concrete proposals were presented" to prevent further contamination in the future. Among its plans, the Commission wants to usher in a system which strictly divides fats for industrial use and those used in food production.
Richard Ashworth, a member of the European Parliament with Britain's conservatives, said: "This latest scare makes the case for effective labeling and traceability systems all the more urgent."
Meanwhile, consumer worries are on the rise in Germany, with sales of organic foods increasing amid the food-scare headlines. A survey commissioned by the mass-circulation daily Bild showed that the latest food scandal has given a boost to public support for organic foods. Some 48 percent of consumers interviewed said they preferred certified organic products -- although only 43 percent were prepared to pay more for the pesticide- and chemical-free products.
German newspapers on Wednesday probe the issue, questioning the extent to which such scandals can be prevented in the future.
The Berlin-based Der Tagespiegel writes:
"(German Agricultural Minister Ilse) Aigner (of the conservative Christian Social Union party) has not managed to reassure consumers that she realizes the extent of the mess and will call those responsible into account and, most importantly, that the scandal will not happen again."
"Responsibility is the name of the game. Consumers should at least be able to expect the government to create structures that produce good food. That should be the case, regardless whether officials or private representatives carry out safety tests and whether the 16 heads of German states get involved. After the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) scandal, Renate Künast, Aigner's predecessor, set up a national seal to help consumers' identify good quality food. The current dioxin-contaminated foods obtained this seal in 2010. What more needs to be said about the effectiveness of the current control system?"
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Right now, the preferred target is Aigner, despite the fact that everyone knows agricultural policy, which forms the framework legislation for the food industry, is decided in Brussels and that it is up to the German states (and not the federal government) to oversee controls on foodstuffs. Aigner would be in a better position if (her predecessor) Renate Künst hadn't been giving the feed industry lobby a tough time -- and if the German states' food industry monitoring authorities weren't so chronically understaffed. That is why, up to now, we only have a random system of voluntary self-monitoring. But in a market as sensitive, hard-fought and spread out in Europe as this one is, such self-monitoring cannot work. Instead of channelling our outrage into bringing down a minister, it would be a better idea to kick consumer protection into action."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The suggestion that the situation is especially bad in Germany because food is cheaper here than in neighboring countries, isn't very convincing. The idea that expensive food is healthier is questionable and even the issue of whether organic food is better than non-organic sparks debate among experts."
"For that reason it is foolhardy and inappropriate to call for an overhaul of farming on the basis of the questionable theory that cheap food is the cause of the scandal. Whoever makes such demands should recall that a large proportion of society weighs up costs versus risks when it comes to purchasing decisions and they still opt to buy cheap food. And those people will continue to live well, despite the alleged toxin contamination."
"It is up to German states to build up their neglected control systems and to do more to prevent future scandals."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Does it sound absurd that a little dioxin in our breakfast eggs could trigger a turnaround in agricultural policy? In the past we have survived rotten meat, pesticides in our vegetables and mad cow disease without seeing any real change. In reality, the actual and perceived threat of BSE was much greater than that of dioxin in animal feed, eggs and meat."
"But the situation has changed. In this respect, scientists and environmentalists are right to call for a 'Change in agricultural policy 2.0.' ... It may sound like eco-science fiction, but the initiatives open up genuine perspectives -- because only a conservative government can enforce painful cuts within their own clientele, the farmers. ... The CDU targets a young, educated, urban and female electoral base -- women who opt for organic sausages as part of their daily consumer choice, and not for ideological reasons. The CDU is under pressure from this group to make some changes."
"Minister Ilse Aigner (CSU) must rid herself of her current image as protector and patron of the agricultural industry. Pressure from the base has already forced the CSU to speak out against genetic engineering in the land. This current popular issue gives Ilse Aigner a chance to position herself at the forefront of the movement. There is nothing to prevent a minister from becoming smarter through a scandal."
-- Jess Smee and Jill Petzinger
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