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Belgium tries to quell meat contamination fears

Reuters Story - June 04, 1999 20:11

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(Updates with government statement, press conference)

By Nieck Ammerlaan

BRUSSELS, June 5 (Reuters) - Belgium, facing growing alarm at home and spreading trade restrictions overseas over a food contamination scare, reassured consumers on Saturday there was no general contamination of Belgian meat.

Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene and top ministers met for nine hours on Friday to coordinate the government's response to a crisis over cancer-causing dioxin found in animal feed.

The scare, Europe's worst food scandal since the British "mad cow" crisis, has led to European Union curbs on Belgian poultry, pork and beef and led France, Portugal and other countries to close their borders to Belgian meat.

"There is no general contamination," the Belgian government said in a statement released in the early hours of Saturday.

Officials have said that around 1,000 poultry, pork and beef farms in Belgium may have received contaminated feed.

Tests so far on pork and beef had found "no effective presence of dioxins," the Belgian government said. However, pork and beef products from suspect farms would be gradually removed from sale, it said.

Chicken, eggs and derived products from suspect farms have already been taken from shelves.

The European Commission on Friday formally extended restrictions already imposed on Belgian chickens and eggs to pork, beef and dairy products from farms which may have received contaminated feed. Meat and dairy goods produced on these farms since January 15 must be traced and removed from sale.

The European Union's executive body said it was convening a special meeting of EU veterinary experts on Monday "to examine the matter further."

France, Austria, the Netherlands and Portugal banned or severely restricted imports of Belgian meat.

Hong Kong said it was removing Belgian products from shops and the United States said all imports of EU chicken and pork would be temporarily halted as a precautionary measure.

The Belgian government said that if dioxins were present in pork and beef, they would be concentrated in fat.

It published a list of Belgian products with high-fat content -- including minced pork, sausages, bacon and pate -- which it said would be removed from sale by Sunday.

Belgium also extended a ban on transporting cattle, pigs and poultry by two days until next Tuesday.

"It seems to me that the measures are going in the direction of what Europe wants," Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche told a news conference.

He said the government was not restricting trade in milk and dairy products because any dioxins would be greatly diluted in huge vats of milk. "There is little chance that you will actually find (dioxins) in milk," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Elio di Rupo defended the government's handling of the crisis but acknowledged that restoring confidence in Belgian meat abroad would be "a collosal job."

"This is not a positive affair for Belgium. However, it should be placed in the right context. This involved a private company," he told Reuters, referring to an oils and fats company at the root of the crisis.

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.

The scandal, initially involving dioxin contamination of chickens and eggs, 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).

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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