Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

990611 Europe moves to contain food poisoning scare

June 5, 1999

Brussels - Efforts to contain a Belgian food contamination crisis gathered pace as the European Union curbed sales of beef, pork and dairy products from hundreds of farms and France banned all Belgian meat.

The EU's Executive Commission formally extended restrictions already imposed on Belgian chickens and eggs to pork, beef and dairy products from farms which may have received feed contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin.

Meat and dairy goods produced on these farms since January 15 must be traced and removed from sale.

The EU said it was convening a special meeting of EU veterinary experts on Monday “to examine the matter further,” although an EU official said no new measures were planned.

Returning home early from a summit of EU leaders in Germany, Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene presided over a marathon cabinet meeting on the crisis.

The Belgian Agriculture Ministry meanwhile announced it was extending a ban on transporting cattle, pigs and poultry by two days until next Tuesday.

The EU's efforts to contain Belgium's widening food panic failed to convince its world trading partners as more countries including the United States imposed unilateral bans on EU farm goods.

Even some of the EU's own member states seemed dissatisfied with the measures and introduced full-blown embargoes.

France on Friday banned all Belgian poultry, beef, pork and other meats. “We have placed an embargo on the imports of all animal meat for human consumption coming from Belgium,” a French official said. “This covers everything except pets.”

France quarantined 66 cattle producers in Normandy amid fears that they may also have used tainted feed. France earlier this week quarantined at least 80 poultry farms.

As Belgium reeled under the widening scare, shops reported sharp drops in meat and poultry sales, consumers raged against the government, and just about everyone wondered what foods were still safe to eat.

“This is worse than mad cow disease in England,” shopper Michelle Toussaint, said. “That was just beef. Here, chicken, beef and pork are included.”

A Belgian government information centre received 3,520 calls from worried consumers on Friday, its first day of operation, and a government Internet site had 115,713 visits.

The scandal has dropped a bombshell just before Belgium's June 13 elections, forcing the resignation of two ministers.

Belgian media have estimated the crisis could cost the nation some 30 billion Belgian francs ($767 million).

There are now around 1,000 farms in Belgium which may have received feed contaminated with dioxin, supplied by a Belgian oils and fat maker. Belgian exporters have to provide a certificate showing their products are dioxin-free.

The Netherlands said that due to mounting confusion it imposed a complete ban on Belgian livestock products and Austria said it would not allow meat and dairy imports from Belgium.

Hong Kong also said it was removing Belgian products from shops, a move that followed an announcement by the United States on Thursday that all imports of EU chicken and pork would be temporarily halted as a precautionary measure.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman on Friday defended the decision against EU accusations it was disproportionate, saying it was strictly a “food safety decision.”

Only a small quantity of European poultry products, mostly pate, is shipped to U.S. buyers. About $250 million worth of European pork was imported last year.

The crisis has further shaken public confidence in food safety, already hit by recent scares over “mad cow” disease, hormones in beef, swine fever and antibiotics in pork.

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