The latest food scandal that has rocked the German organic farming sector now threatens to spiral out of control, as news of further contamination of animal feed emerges.
The scandal is hurting Germany's Minister for Consumer Protection, Renate Künast
On Tuesday after a crisis meeting with ecological food processors and organic farming organisations, German Federal Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture, Renate Künast admitted that the news was much worse than earlier thought.
Künast now believes that an additional 450 tonnes of poultry meal contaminated by the cancer-causing herbicide nitrofen could have been sold, possibly knowingly, by feed producers.
Earlier on Monday authorities confirmed that about 100 tonnes of tainted feed wheat containing the banned nitrofen from a co-operative in the east German state of Brandenburg may have been delivered to about 120 ecological chicken farms.
Renate Künast on Tuesday accused the food producers involved of "being swayed by criminal energy" and "risking human life".
Intense investigations after embarrassing slip-ups
The Federal Agricultural Ministry is investigating allegations that food processors had found that meat and eggs had tested positive for nitrofen, but failed to inform authorities.
Renate Künast has promised a comprehensive investigation of how the cancer-causing chemical entered the food chain. Until now investigations had only involved organic animal feed, but now the minister said the investigation would also cover conventional animal fodder.
"We will now seek a tightening of regulations to oblige companies which find dangerous substances during private testing to tell the authorities", a spokeswoman of the ministry told Reuters.
Chemielaborantin Stefanie Brune arbeitet am Dienstag, 28. Mai 2002, im Lebensmittelinstitut des Niedersaechsischen Landesamts fuer Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit (LAVES) in Oldenburg an einem Testlauf fuer das Auffinden von Nitrofen in Eiern. Am Nachmittag sollen die ersten Proben von moeglicherweise mit dem Unkrautvernichtungsmittel belasteten Eier eintreffen. Mit Nitrofen verseuchter Weizen wurde zur Herstellung von Futter benutzt. Dieses wurde bundesweit an oekologisch arbeitende Landwirtschaftsbetriebe verkauft. Vielen Oekohoefen wurde der Vertrieb von Gefluegelfleisch und Eiern bis auf Weiteres untersagt. (AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)
Renate Künast also admitted on German television that a federal testing laboratory had found nitrofen in March in a sample of ecologically produced turkey meat.
She said that the laboratory thought its test was only needed for an insurance case and did not report the discovery to food safety agencies. It took more than two months for that explosive information to reach the public.
No answers in sight
The investigators are focussing on an east German animal feed producer "GS Agri" from Lower Saxony, one of the biggest players on the German feeds market. According to Künast, the company thrice detected traces of nitrofen in internal analysis between November and May, but still continued to sell its feed.
Since 90 per cent of GS Agri’s production is supplied to conventional animal feed processors, Künast is not ruling out a widening of the crisis on conventional farms.
But Federal authorities are still no closer to any answers to how the nitrofen got into the meat in the first place.
A federal Agriculture Ministry spokesman said, "we do not know whether it was imported, mixed in or something else happened".
Faith in bio-products shaken after major health scare
Ever since the scandal came to light on Friday after a turkey farm in Lower Saxony called state authorities and told them it had produced meat containing nitrofen after using the feed, the German organic farming community has been reeling.
Künast is now under intense pressure to assuage widespread fears that "bio" products that are usually so popular in Germany are now not "safe to consume" anymore.
The culprit in the present scandal – the herbicide nitrofen has been banned in Germany for the past 14 years because it is believed to cause cancer.
In a television interview, Patricia Cameron of the environmental organisation, WWF said, "nitrofen is especially dangerous not only because it can play havoc with the genetic make-up and lead to cancer, but also because it belongs to the group of hormonal substances that can cause grave damages even in very small concentrations".
Künast anxious to avoid loss of face and reputation
But, apart from the battering and loss of confidence that the entire bio-product industry is bound to face, Renate Künast herself is at pains to explain that she is committed to pushing through her promised agricultural reforms despite the scandal.
The minister is known for her "pro bio" stance ever since scares such as the BSE and foot-and-mouth surfaced last year.
But she has often been accused by critics of being unfairly one-sided in her agrarian policy to benefit organic farmers.
Künast also came under fire earlier this year for failing to inform the public in time about a large stock of contaminated Dutch fishmeal laced with the potent chloramphenicol that landed in the German market.