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Friday June 4, 9:57 am Eastern Time

FOCUS-EU struggles to contain food scare impact

(Recasts with spreading crisis)

By David Evans

BRUSSELS, June 4 (Reuters) - European Union moves to contain the deepening food safety scare in Belgium failed to convince its world trading partners on Friday 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 to curb sales of meat and dairy products potentially contaminated with the highly toxic chemical dioxin and introduced their own blocks on Belgian products.

The European Commission has said it will ban the sale of chicken, pork, beef and dairy products sourced to around 1,000 farms in Belgium, which received contamined animal feed. Exporters have to provide a certificate showing their products are dioxin-free.

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

``Government leaders took action to put in place the measures after reports of the Belgian dioxin affair became more confused and also gave more cause for concern,'' the Dutch government said in a statement.

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

The U.S. Agriculture Department said it would review all imports of pork and poultry products from the EU since January to see if any additional action was needed.

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 European Commission called the move disproportionate.

Commission spokesman Gerry Kiely defended EU laws on food safety but said much depended on the way they were implemented.

``You can have all the legislation in the world but if it is not applied by the member states, it is not worth the paper it is written on,'' he told the daily news briefing.

Belgium's Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene went into crisis meetings to try to quell the scare, cutting short his presence at a summit of EU leaders in Cologne.

Analysts have said the economic impact is almost impossible to calculate but Belgium's budget minister and also the new farm minister Herman Van Rompuy said on Friday he expected the crisis over dioxin poisoning to hit the country's budget.

``It is a terribly important, delicate dossier, not just for public health...but it is also a dossier with enormous economic consequences and I fear also budgetary consequences,'' Van Rompuy told VRT radio.

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, a mood reflected by European newspapers on Friday.

``When food is concerned, something is wrong in the European Union. Alarm bells ring late. Economic interests are more protected than citizens' health,'' said Spanish daily ABC.

Belgian retailers admitted public confidence was shaken but tried to play down the impact on sales.

``People have to eat,'' said Guy Elewaut, spokesman for Delhaize, Belgium's second biggest food retailer.

The crisis broke a week ago when it emerged that chickens on about 400 Belgian farms had been given feed contaminated with dioxin, supplied by the oils and fat maker Verkest.

The firm's managers have been charged with labelling and accounting fraud, although exactly how the dioxin contamination occurred is still under investigation.


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