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Government tries to contain food scandal; world tries to contain Belgium

Associated Press DataStream - June 05, 1999 14:23

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AP Photos BRU101,102,104

By RAF CASERT

Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Belgium tried to contain a spreading tainted-food scandal Saturday with new restrictions that further emptied already depleted supermarket shelves.

Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene announced Saturday that high-fat beef and pork products had to be taken out of shops by Sunday. The government had already removed poultry, eggs and their byproducts, a move that affected everything from Belgian waffles to mayonnaise.

"First things first. We have to restore confidence," Dehaene said after a 12-hour overnight meeting.

Many other countries had already adopted measures of their own to contain Europe's worst food scandal since Britain's 1996 Mad Cow disease.

The United States blocked European Union imports of pork and poultry, and Singapore banned all EU meat products. Countries from Switzerland to South Korea took similar measures against Belgian products.

The EU took strong measures, but many member states issued tougher bans of their own.

The scandal broke last week when media reported that fat laced with cancer-causing dioxin was used to make poultry feed. Belgium's health and farm ministers resigned when it became clear they had waited a month before revealing the contamination.

"Even the maddest of science fiction screenwriters could not have come up with something like this," wrote the daily Le Soir.

Around the nation, containers were provided for shopkeepers and families to deposit their suspect food.

Dioxin has been traced to 176,000 pounds of contaminated animal feed from 10 companies. The government was still checking which farms had used the products.

"As of next week, we should be able to bring safe supplies on the market from non-suspect farms," Dehaene said.

Farmers complained the safety measures were too drastic and would seriously harm their image.

"This gives an incredibly negative signal to the world at large," said Noel Devisch, the president of the Farmers Union. He and leaders of other affected groups held talks Saturday with the government.

Retailers were among the hardest hit.

The government has found dioxin levels 1,000 times higher than normal in chickens. The latest tests on pigs were satisfactory but Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche remained wary.

"We've had six results which were very good, but who knows what results will be shown to me tomorrow," he said. "The situation will be under control only once everything is known."

Meanwhile, consumers had to show ingenuity, shopping at organic food and fish shops and snapping up any foreign product still in the shelves.

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