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US may ease ban on Euromeat imports if found safe

Reuters Story - June 04, 1999 18:22

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By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - The United States could ease its ban on imports of European pork and poultry if it was sure the products were free of cancer-causing dioxin, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said on Friday.

Consumer and food-industry groups endorsed the decision announced on Thursday to block the imports in the wake of the biggest food scare in Europe since the "mad cow" outbreak in Britain earlier this decade. They called it a prudent precaution.

Most of the poultry products eaten by Americans are produced at home although a few million pounds (kg), mostly pate, are imported. About $250 million of European pork was shipped to the U.S. market last year.

European Union officials initially banned the sale of chicken and eggs from Belgian farms that may have used livestock feed contaminated with dioxin.

They broadened the ban on Friday to pork, beef and dairy products as the count of suspect farms hit 1,000. France has quarantined 146 cattle and poultry farms.

"I would have to say this (the U.S. bar on imports) was a food safety decision," Glickman told reporters, but added:

"There will be further evaluations as time goes on, perhaps to narrow it if it's warranted."

A Glickman spokesman said it was "in the realm of the possible" that European nations would be removed from the ban if it could be shown they were not the source of dioxin- contaminated products. A meat inspection official said the ban could also be broadened if need be.

Meat-safety officials are reviewing pork and poultry imports from the European Union since January, when the contamination is believed to have begun, to see if additional action is needed.

At present, there are no U.S. guidelines for importers or distributors on clearing products for entry. Handlers might be required to test imports for dioxin or provide documents showing their goods came from safe areas.

Two years ago, U.S. meat-safety officials briefly closed 300 poultry, livestock and egg processing plants in southern states after dioxin was found in animal feed. Fish and meat processors were required to make sure dioxin levels in their products were below the federal threshold of one part per trillion.

"We've faced this problem in the United States. We would expect them to be just as tough (on imports)," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Even low levels of dioxin may increase a person's chances of cancer."

The Belgian food scare erupted amid a transatlantic dispute over European resistance to the genetic modification of food and the use of synthetic hormones to fatten cattle, practices that are common in the United States.

"Perhaps the Europeans ought to be paying more attention to the more immediate food safety problems than safety concerns about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which are much more theoretical," said Art Jaeger of the Consumer Federation of America, one of the larger U.S. consumer groups.

Glickman said he did not expect the dioxin scare to have any impact on U.S. efforts to get the EU to drop its decade-old ban on so-called hormone beef.

"That's a separate issue," he said.

The United States has threatened to impose 100 percent duties on EU pork and poultry, among other imports, in retaliation for the hormone-beef ban.

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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