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The World from Berlin: Germany's Food Contamination Scandal Widens

German consumers have been alarmed by a health scare over potentially contaminated eggs, after dioxins were discovered in animal feed. On Wednesday, government officials in Berlin confirmed that some eggs were also delivered to the Netherlands. The German press warns against overreacting to the scandal.

An employee of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia's food control institute analyzes eggs, suspected to be contaminated with dioxin. Zoom
REUTERS

An employee of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia's food control institute analyzes eggs, suspected to be contaminated with dioxin.

Germany's food production methods are under the spotlight as a scandal over contaminated animal feed reaches new proportions. On Wednesday, the government in Berlin confirmed that the problem may extend beyond Germany's borders.

Potentially contaminated eggs that have caused a health scare at home were also exported to the Netherlands, Holger Eichele, a spokesman for the German Agricultural and Consumer Protection Ministry, told reporters. A total of 136,000 eggs were delivered to a Dutch firm, which has since been informed about the problem. "The European Commission was informed. We are not aware of any other deliveries to other (EU) members," Eichele said.

The scare has been caused by the discovery of a dioxin, which is linked to the development of cancer in humans, in animal feed. The source of the contaminated substance has been traced to Harles & Jentzsch, a company based in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. It is thought that industrial fats may have been used in the production of the additive. On Wednesday, police carried out raids on two of the company's sites in search of evidence.

Up to 3,000 tons of the contaminated additive is alleged to have been sold to 25 animal feed manufacturers in five of Germany's 16 states in November and December. The scare has forced the closure of more than 1,000 farms in the northern state of Lower Saxony alone and the culling of over 8,000 chickens.

The German government has sought to allay consumers' fears, saying that the level of the dioxin in food would be too low to pose health risks. However, Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner has also said that the authorities would consider whether existing regulations on animal feed needed tightening up. She is due to meet with her state counterparts later in the month to discuss the consequences of the scandal.

As they assess the contamination affair on Wednesday, most German editorialists urge caution against taking hasty action on the issue of animal feed production.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"BSE (mad cow disease), dioxins in egg noodles, organic eggs, even chocolate -- whenever foodstuffs are the subject of discussion, the reason is usually contaminated animal feed. ... And the ritual is repeating itself now, with officials and politicians assuring us that the products that have landed in the shops do not pose health risks, but at the same time drastic measures have to be taken against the producers. More than a thousand farms, mostly in northern Germany, have been the first victims of this latest animal feed scandal. Those living in the big cities can barely imagine what the temporary closure of these businesses, ones that are barely breaking even, will mean."

"The consumer demand for cheap food has put an unhealthy pressure to reduce prices on agriculture."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The rapidly rising life expectancy here is proof that alongside better medicine and an improved environment, our food is becoming increasingly healthier."

"The demands by the (center-left) Social Democratic Party to put the entire system of animal husbandry to the test are trite and ridiculous. When all the ministries and federal offices responsible for this sector point out that due to the very low traces that are in question there is no danger to health, we can try to believe them rather than dismissing this as a cover-up, as if they were Soviet apparatchiks after Chernobyl."

"The system does not require reorganization. Special sessions in parliaments to consider new legislation are not needed, either. This is simply a case of a company that broke the rules. There is cause for concern, however. The case shows that there are not enough official inspections."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is an urgent need to overhaul the inspection system. The times when a farmer prepared feed for his own animals are no more. Today, it is based on a division of labor. The dioxin case shows just how complex these processes have become. Something is mixed by one person, delivered by another, who then mixes it again and then distributes it to someone else. By the time the feed ends up in the trough it has been through many hands. In the case of contamination this distribution chain has to be carefully unraveled."

"It would make more sense to strictly control the quality of the ingredients at every stage of production. That may make production more expensive but the authorities have to ensure that food is healthy. Closing more than 1,000 farms, as is happening now, is also not cheap. Strict controls are also necessary to dispel the impression that has now arisen: that it is only by pure chance that a scandal is discovered."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"It only took a week from the first discovery for the inspectors to trace the source of the contamination through the production chain. ... The case, therefore, does not provide grounds for tougher legislation or a stricter division of feed production from other production chains."

"Tougher punishments and stricter inspections will do little to change the fundamental problem: Nowhere in Europe is there the same price pressure on food as in Germany. The temptation is therefore great to mix in cheap, dangerous materials, in order to reduce the costs of production and increase competitiveness. Or the companies employ people who may cost less in wages, but lack the necessary qualifications."

"The customers have long had a choice. They know that the cheap eggs in the supermarket around the corner do not come from happy chickens running around an organic farm, but rather from industrial and highly differentiated mass production. But many people accept this because of the low prices."

The leftist Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Chickens, pigs and cows are regularly used as garbage bins, to cut down the costs of feeding them. Some of this makes sense. Why should the whey left over in cheese production or the pomace left behind in breweries be thrown away? However, food that has gone past its sell-by date is also used as feed, as well as the guts and refuse from fish production. And old oil from deep-fat fryers are seen as tasty nutrition for cattle."

"Now a rapeseed oil from the biofuels company Petrotec and had been processed by the small company Harles & Jentzsch has been found to contain dioxins. The fact that animal feed was processed using technical oil is just part of the scandal. The far more important question is this: How did a dioxin get into the production of biofuels? ... It is entirely possible that this animal feed scandal could turn into a chemicals scandal."

-- Siobhán Dowling

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