The discovery of the highly poisonous chemical dioxin in eggs and poultry last week has unleashed an investigation and triggered calls for reevaluating food safety regulations. Now, the EU is getting involved.
The contamination is more widespread than originally thought
The European Union wants Germany to reveal the full extent of the dioxin scandal in Germany.
A spokesperson for EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, on Tuesday demanded to know whether contaminated eggs or meat had been exported to other member states. It was, however, "too early" to consider a ban on exports, he added.
The poisonous chemical dioxin was discovered in eggs and poultry last week and is believed to have stemmed from animal feed contaminated with industrial fats.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Wednesday closed a further 139 farms as prosecutors in the state launched an investigation targeting chicken feed producers for having used contaminated ingredients.
Johannes Remmel, the state's consumer affairs minister, demanded consequences for those responsible for the dioxin contamination.
"This is a scandal and we have to discuss the political consequences," Remmel told public broadcaster ARD. "That means we have to talk about the [distribution] chain; whether the controls are sufficient," he said.
Remmel added that more farms could still be shut down in the wake of the investigation. "I don't think we have an acute danger, but dioxin simply does not belong in food. There is a reason we have maximum permissible limits. Dioxin is dangerous to your health and can cause cancer," he said.
More than 1,000 chicken farms across Germany have been banned from selling eggs and poultry and over 8,000 chickens were culled after cancer-causing dioxin was found in animal feed.
Authorities in the eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony Anhalt said that at least 55 tons of suspect feed out of a total of 527 tons had already been fed to chickens and that more than 100,000 contaminated eggs had gone to market.
Levels 'far exceeded' limits
The European Union has legally binding limits for concentrations of dioxins in foodstuffs.
Heidelore Fiedler, an expert on chemicals for the United Nations Environment Programme, told Deutsche Welle that the levels discovered in the contaminated eggs in Germany "far exceeded" these limits.
Dioxins are regarded as dangerous because they are toxic in minute quantities. They "exhibit many toxic effects in humans and animals including cancer" and target the immune-, reproductive- and nervous-systems, Fiedler said.
A further problem is their persistence. Fiedler said that of the many chemicals commonly referred to as dioxins, "17 compounds are very stable and do not degrade or metabolize easily."
"They accumulate in animals and humans and are only slowly excreted through transformation into more water-soluble compounds," she said. "Presently, the intake from background exposures is still higher than the elimination, therefore, body burdens in humans increase over a lifetime."
Problem goes beyond Germany
Repeated scandals have raised questions about food safety in Germany
Gert Hahne, the spokesman for the State Agriculture Ministry of Lower Saxony, emphasized that "consumer protection is our priority."
The affected farms are believed to have purchased animal feed contaminated with dioxin from a facility in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein which, in turn, received toxic products from a dealer in the Netherlands.
The German feed manufacturer Harles & Jentzsch in Schleswig-Holstein said on Tuesday that for years it had been mixing waste from biodiesel production into animal feed.
Company chief Siegfried Sievert said he had assumed that the fatty acid waste from palm, soy and rapeseed oil used to make biofuels and supplied by the Dutch company was suitable for animal feed.
The German biodiesel company, Petrotec, which supplied the fatty acids to the Dutch feed dealer, said its products were for industrial lubricants only and not intended for animal feed.
Lower Saxony's Hahne said it "could take weeks" before all the products from the affected farms can be tested for dioxin, a comment that has the German Farmers Association up in arms.
These farmers could be driven into bankruptcy, the association said, and demanded that the perpetrators pay for the damages with "no ifs, ands or buts."
Hiedelore Fiedler said in recent years, the industrial production of animal feed at the beginning of our food chain has been identified as a source of contamination for human food products.
"These contaminants move up the food chain and concentrate from one trophic level to the next," she said, adding that "the sources, often geographically far away, need to be identified and eliminated."
Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa, AP, AFP)
Editor: Nathan Witkop