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What's for dinner? In Belgium, not steak, eggs, or pastries

Associated Press DataStream - June 04, 1999 19:18

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Eds: LEADS throughout with government withdrawing most pork and beef products, Prime Minister quotes. EDITS and TRIMS. No pickup. Should stand. Also moved on general news lines

AP Photo BRU101


Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium - What's for dinner tonight? No local steaks for the main course. No chicken. Nothing with eggs in it. No Belgian waffles for dessert. Forget pastries and ice cream.

An entire nation wondered what to eat Friday after those foods and more were yanked from supermarket shelves or considered too suspect to eat because of cancer-causing dioxin feared to have spread through the Belgian food chain due to contaminated animal feed.

"No chicken, no pork, no eggs, no beef!" screamed a banner headline in the daily La Derniere Heure.

"And that jar of mayonnaise? Better not touch it," said Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche.

Following 12 hours of emergency talks, the government decided early Saturday to withdraw all beef and pork products with a high fat content from the shelves. It had already yanked all poultry, eggs and byproducts earlier this week in an attempt to counter Belgium's worsening dioxin food scandal.

Officials confirmed that hundreds of cattle and pig farms had also used contaminated animal feed.

The latest decision affected popular pork sausages, blood sausages, a slew of pates and salami. Prime Minister Dehaene said the list was selective since dioxin is most prevalent in fatty meats.

"The government now has a list with the (beef and pork) products that have to be taken out of the shops," said Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had rushed back from a European Union summit to deal with the problem.

State police went on alert to make sure no poultry, pigs or cattle is slaughtered or transported anywhere until Tuesday. Cops went from shop to shop to check whether potentially contaminated products had been taken off the shelves.

"I'll make a vegetable pasta for Saturday. For the rest, it will be a lot of cheese and veggies," said shopper Nina Deknopper. "My daughter told me to throw all the old stuff out and I guess I'll do it. From now on - trust no one, only your common sense."

Organic food stores were doing great business and foreign foods were popular to replace discredited local fare.

Belgian farmers were outraged.

"Our consternation is total," said Roger Saenen of the Farmers Union. "All this is so colossal, it is indigestible."

The scandal broke last week when a television station reported that fat laced with dioxin - a carcinogenic byproduct of the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides - was used to make poultry feed. Belgium's health and farm ministers resigned when it became clear they knew about the dioxin for a month before making it public.

The 15-nation EU, meanwhile, quickly took measures to contain the food crisis and was looking to add dairy products to the list of restrictions already imposed on produce from suspect farms.

Greece imposed an immediate ban on all imports of Belgian animal products. Britain said it would issue an emergency order to destroy Belgian pork, beef and related products suspected of dioxin contamination.

France and Switzerland banned imports of meat and meat products.

Countries outside the EU were also taking action. The United States held up all imports of chickens, pork and any byproducts from the EU - a response the EU called "disproportionate."

Russia banned the import of Belgian pork and pig fodder. Health authorities confiscated 20 tons of ground turkey in central Russia because of fears of dioxin contamination. Romania imposed a ban on all imports of Belgian livestock and animal products.

Van den Bossche said 175,000 pounds of contaminated animal feed had been distributed to poultry, beef and pig farms early this year. Initial tests showed dioxin levels in some chickens were 1,000 times the accepted limit.

The scandal was limited to poultry until Thursday, when it became evident that pork and beef could also be contaminated. An estimated 140 cattle farms, 500 pig farms and 416 poultry farms have been linked to the contaminated fat.

Two officials of the company who produced the animal feed fat have been arrested on fraud charges.

The food crisis was already taking a toll on jobs. The Ter Beke meat company had to temporarily lay off 1,000 of its 1,200 workers.

It is Europe's worst food scandal since the mad cow disease in 1996, when the EU Commission imposed a worldwide export ban on British beef.

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