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Belgian Official Warns of Food Woes

Associated Press Online - June 06, 1999 16:28

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Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - With pressure building to find out how cancer-causing dioxin ended up in some Belgian foods, the country's top health official admitted Sunday that the government has no system of checking ingredients of animal feed for contamination.

"There are no controls at the entry point of the food chain," said Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche. "Things can go wrong there permanently."

Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene said a special commission is needed to investigate how tainted food ended up on Belgium's dinner plates.

Animal feed contaminated with dioxin led the government to order stores to stop selling poultry, eggs, fatty pork and beef and all byproducts. The bans, along with nagging insecurity, have kept Belgians from eating favorite dishes such as roast chicken, waffles and chocolate mousse.

Hundreds of butchers and bakers were either closed Sunday or were planning to close in the coming days because most of their products have been discredited or banned since the dioxin scandal broke last week.

The government maintains the problems began when animal fat, contaminated with dioxin most likely from mechanical oil, was mixed up with 176,000 pounds of feed for poultry, pigs and cattle.

The government is having trouble pinpointing which farms used the tainted animal feed, forcing officials to keep the products off the shelves.

"The major problem remains to separate the suspect firms from the others. I still don't have any certainly so I won't publish a list," Dehaene said. "There is simply too much at stake."

The ruling Socialists criticized the delay.

"I'm scandalized that we are unable to come with a list. I wait with impatience for an explanation," said Vice Premier Elio di Rupo.

Belgium's health and farm ministers resigned Tuesday after it became clear they had known about the problem for a month without informing the public or even the prime minister.

Dioxin is a byproduct of the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides, and it has been thrust to the center of elections that are one week away.

Belgium has long had problems keeping its food healthy. The illegal use of artificial hormones in beef has turned into a lucrative fraud racket, highlighted when a hitman killed a veterinary inspector a few years ago. Those responsible have yet to be brought to trial.

Consumers over the weekend had to be creative in their shopping, especially since fish shops and organic food stores couldn't keep up with demand.

Many sought out Italian salamis or Spanish hams.

Outside Belgium, other governments quickly adopted measures 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 scandal broke last week when media reported that fat laced with cancer-causing dioxin was used to make poultry feed. It became clear the feed also was used for pigs and cattle.

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