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Germany

Nitrofen Scandal Reveals Historical Traces

After days of pointing fingers, a government task force has identified a former East German warehouse as the source of the banned herbicide nitrofen, which mysteriously popped up in organic food during the last month.

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German wheat in its natural state, before it was tainted by nitrofen

Over the weekend, Consumer Protection and Agriculture Minister Renate Künast announced that a governmental task force had established the source of nitrofen-contaminated wheat used to make poultry feed that was distributed to organic farms throughout Germany. The grain, which was turned into chicken fodder, came from an old warehouse in the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg- West Pomerania.

Located in the former communist East Germany, the warehouse was once used as a depot for herbicides and still bears strong traces of the carcinogen nitrofen, a chemical substance long-since banned by the German government.

A particle sample taken from the Mecklenburg granary revealed two milligrams of nitrofen per kilogram of dust. Experts say this extremely high chemical concentration explains how the herbicide managed to taint wheat stored in the building and eventually make its way into the food chain via poultry fodder and chicken products.

Criminal investigation

After the results were made known on Saturday, Mecklenburg’s agricultural minister, Till Backhaus, immediately shut down the company responsible for storing the contaminated grain, Norddeutsche Saat- und Pflanzgut AG (NSP).

Federal prosecutors and state criminal investigators from Mecklenburg are now working on the case, tracing back how the former chemical warehouse came to be used for storing food products. According to agricultural officials, NSP only began renting the warehouse last October. Previously, it was used by an agricultural supplier.

Speaking to the press, Backhaus expressed his shock over the government’s task force findings, and said it was "inconceivable, that a warehouse once used to store herbicides is now being used to store grain."

Backhaus pointed out that NSP had been certified by Grünstempel, an organic farming supervisory agency. Normally such a certificate indicates that a thorough background check on the company, including all its warehouse facilities, had been conducted in the course of the certification process. In the case of NSP this had not happened or the checks were not detailed enough.

Government officials working in the state and federal agricultural ministry say they now intend to inspect all grain warehouses with similar East German backgrounds. So far, however, there is no indication that other granaries have been effected.

Pointing fingers

Now that the source of the contaminated wheat has been determined, organic poultry farmers and feed producers have begun pointing fingers and passing the blame for the nitrofen scandal. The question on everyone’s mind is: Why wasn’t the tainted wheat identified and made public earlier? And who is ultimately responsible?

Consumer groups and organic farmers criticize the federal agriculture ministry and Renate Künast of the Greens Party for failing to ensure proper safety guidelines and background checks. Nitrofen, they say, has long been banned as a herbicide in Germany, yet very few federal food safety laboratories conduct tests for the substance. Consumers also blame Künast for not keeping a closer watch on her own ministry, saying officials were aware of the existence of the feed as early as two months ago.

Künast, in turn, blames the traditional farmers’ federation for the nitrofen scandal. "This is not, and was not an organic farming scandal," she said on Saturday. Referring to "mafia-like tendencies" connecting the Raiffeisen group of farmers’ credit cooperatives with the farmers’ federation, Künast accused the "old structures" in the feed business of knowing about the contaminated wheat for weeks while trying to turn a profit at the expense of organic farmers. The only solution, Künast said, was to "shut it all down."

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder defended Künast during a pre-election campaign conference for his Social Democrats on Sunday. He said the nitrofen scandal showed that the government’s emphasis on increasing organic farming practices was "more necessary than ever."

"We must not allow the agricultural shift to be destroyed by the outmoded structures of the farmers’ federation," Schröder insisted. He said that in the aftermath of the crisis sparked by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow’s disease, consumer protection had become the focus of the government’s agricultural reform and that more controls had been put into place to guarantee food safety. But, he said these checks were "still insufficient," and he warned, "There are strong forces lobbying for a return to the old structures. They must be overcome."

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