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Europe

EU farm ministers moot tougher food checks after dioxin scare

European Union agriculture ministers have said that stricter bloc-wide measures were needed to prevent a repeat of a damaging dioxin poisoning scare in farm produce in Germany earlier this month.

A cow is given animal feed

The dioxin scare led to culls on many German farms

European Union agriculture ministers called for tougher food safety checks in the wake of a dioxin scandal in Germany and a drop in consumer trust over the incident.

The ministers agreed in Brussels on Monday that rules were also needed to make sure animal feed was kept strictly separate from industrial fats.

Germany's dioxin scare came to the fore in early January when a feed production company admitted that industrial fats had been mixed into animal feed by mistake. Samples tested at farms across Germany showed that feed contained the toxic compound diaxon at nearly 80 times the permitted level, leading to chicken and pig culls.

International confidence in German agricultural products further eroded when China and South Korea slapped bans on German pork in the wake of the scandal.

But EU Health Commissioner John Dalli said in Brussels that the German government handled the crisis well.

"The commission is satisfied with the management of the contamination incident by Germany. This incident has demonstrated that our overall food safety system is reliable," he said. "The traceability system, for example, proved that they are very effective. But it also showed there is room for improvement."

Tighter controls

There was consensus at the ministers' meeting on where that improvement might take place: strict inspections should make sure the production of industrial oils is physically separated from animal feed.

The EU also wanted to establish an early-warning system for dioxin in food. If private labs find dioxin when testing feed, they should be obliged to report it, they said.

Ilse Aigner

Aigner wants to prosecute people who break animal feed rules

Ilse Aigner, Germany's minister for agriculture and consumer protection, said regulators must go further, for instance by drawing up a list of ingredients allowed in animal feed.

But Aigner faces opposition, not least from Commissioner Dalli, who said such a list would be superfluous.

Aigner stressed, however, than any steps taken would cost money.

"Let's be honest, some of these measures will put a burden on the industry economically. But they are absolutely necessary. Cost must not get in the way of improving food safety," she said.

Widespread effects

Pork in a shop counter

China and South Korea introduced bans on German pork

Aigner's Austrian counterpart Nikolaus Berlakovich complained that - even though Austria itself had not had a dioxin scandal - its pig farmers were suffering from falling prices. While he didn't blame any one country, he said a flawed system was at the heart of the problem.

"Europe has a food scandal almost every year. So I think the whole industry has to change, not just the farmers, but the food processing industry and retail as well," he said, adding, "We cannot go on squeezing the last penny out of food without damaging safety. Safety must be paramount."

The EU Commission announced it would help those in the EU suffering from low pork prices as a result of the scandal by subsidizing the storage of pork until prices had risen again.

But it may take some time to bring back consumers' trust. This is now the fourth dioxin food scandal in the EU in 10 years, following incidents in Belgium and Ireland, and a previous case in Germany.

The European Commission was expected to draft its legal proposals in reaction to the dioxin scare in the coming weeks, which will then have to be approved by the EU's 27 member states.

Author: Christoph Hasselbach, Darren Mara (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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