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Germany

EU says German food safety laws are effective

The European Commission says food safety mechanisms in Germany are already effective. But critics are calling for stricter controls in the wake of the dioxin scare. So how does Germany compare with other EU countries?

Eggs with Dioxin sign

EU guidelines control what goes into animal feed

The European Commission has said that banning German imports after the recent dioxin scare would be an overreaction. High levels of the carcinogen dioxin were found in German eggs after animal feed was contaminated with industrial oils.

Frederic Vincent, spokesman for European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli, said Monday that banning German imports of pork and poultry products was unwarranted: "It is a disproportionate reaction compared to the existing situation in Germany," Vincent said.

In Italy, authorities called for new EU rules to allow for the country of origin to be specified on all fresh food labels – a requirement that was introduced for beef after the "mad cow" epidemic that hit Britain in the 1990s.

"We will reflect on the issue and see whether it is feasible," Vincent said.

Suspect exports have been reported in the Netherlands, Britain and Italy, and contaminated products have also found their way to France and Denmark.

Chemists at work

Manufacturers carry out their own tests

Critics are calling for stricter regulations and penalties to prevent such food scares happening again.

German news magazine Der Spiegel said in Monday's edition: "The latest dioxin case shows that those responsible have learned too little from previous food scandals… the monitoring system is too lax."

So how does Germany's food safety mechanism compare to that of other member states?

Responsibility of member states

EU guidelines are designed to prevent food contamination, although their rules are not binding: it's the individual member states that are responsible for controlling what enters the food chain and protecting consumers.

Europe's food production and processing systems are highly integrated, meaning that food contamination scares can spread rapidly to several EU countries. In this instance, eggs from German farms affected by dioxins were found to have entered the UK in liquid egg from the Netherlands.

The EU requires that controls are thorough and independent. As of 2007, every member state has had to produce a national control plan. In the current dioxin scare in Germany, the manufacturer was given the task of conducting tests on their own produce, but it is alleged that the firm did not pass on the results of the tests to government authorities.

German authorities alerted the European Commission to the contaminated feed problem at the end of December 2010, which set off a rapid response system in other member states.

Terry Donohoe from the UK's Food Standards Agency says the European-wide alert system works very well.

"In this case, the necessary action was taken certainly within the UK," Donohoe told Deutsche Welle. "I understand that the German authorities in conjunction with the European Commission are taking all steps necessary to identify any other products that may have been implicated."

"We were able to identify the implicated product very quickly and work with the retailers who'd received those products to remove them from the shelves," Donohoe added.

"If there are areas where controls could be tightened, then that is an appropriate lesson to learn," Donohoe said. "But the fundamental rules are still there."

The Food Standards Agency is a UK body which works through local authorities to ensure the rules are enforced. It is up to food suppliers to ensure that products they put on the shelves are fit to be eaten. Manufacturers are also required to keep records of the provenance of their products.

Federalized system

Similar rules apply in Germany, but it's the responsibility of each federal state to carry out food checks. German agriculture ministry spokesman Robert Schaller says each individual state monitors food suppliers and producers.

"That has the huge advantage that you can tackle an issue on the ground more quickly and more precisely," Schaller said. "But the disadvantage is that problems aren't dealt with at the same speed across the board, and there are also some discrepancies in terms of the regulations."

According to Schaller, 80 to 90 percent of all food laws in Germany are based on European guidelines. He says the food safety mechanisms function well in Germany, and maintains they were effective in the recent dioxin scare.

A fellow spokesman for the German agriculture ministry, Holger Eichele, agrees with Schaller. "The Commission has praised the measures put into place in Germany and confirmed their effectiveness," Eichele said.

He added: "We are making clear that at no point did German exports pose any health risk."

Author: Joanna Impey (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Ben Knight

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