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Thursday June 3, 6:45 pm Eastern Time

US to block EU poultry, pork after dioxin scare

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WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - The United States will block imports of poultry and pork from the European Union to make sure the meat is not tainted with the cancer-causing chemical dioxin, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Thursday.

In response to the worst food safety scare to hit Europe since the mad cow disease outbreak earlier this decade, the United States also will review all imports of pork and poultry products from the EU since January.

The U.S. action follows a decision by European leaders to destroy chicken and egg-based foods originating from Belgium and made between January 15 and June 1.

The crackdown was spurred by the discovery that 400 poultry farms in Belgium may have used animal feed contaminated with dioxin. The Belgium government said the feed also may have gone to 500 pig breeders. Cattle are also being tested for dioxin.

U.S. inspection officials described the U.S. action as a ``hold,'' rather than an outright ban. It will apply to all products containing pork and poultry in addition to just the meats, the department said.

The review of imports since January will be to determine if any additional action is needed.

``These are precautionary steps. Americans enjoy the safest food supply in the world and we are committed to protecting it,'' said Mike Mira, acting administrator of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

U.S. officials did not say how long the hold would remain in effect, or what kinds of tests would be acceptable to win release of the commodities.

Only a small quantity of European poultry products, mostly pate, are shipped to U.S. buyers.

But about $250 million worth of European pork was imported last year out of total U.S. imports of $701 million.

Most of the 74.7 billion pounds (34 billion kg) of meat that Americans consume each year is produced domestically.

Pork imports account for about 700 million pounds (318.2 million kg) of U.S. meat consumption and poultry imports only about 5 million pounds (2.27 million kg), according to U.S. government figures.

By coincidence, the United States has threatened to impose 100 percent punitive duties on EU pork and poultry imports in retaliation for the EU's refusal to open its market to beef from cattle treated with artificial growth hormones.

Although U.S. officials say decades of testing show the practice is safe, the EU has maintained its ban for ten years.

A decision on whether EU pork and poultry would be hit with punitive duties is not expected until mid-July, when the World Trade Organization is scheduled to rule on the U.S. request to retaliate on $202 million in EU goods.

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