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Belgium Food Scandal Spreads

Associated Press Online - June 07, 1999 17:04

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By RAF CASERT

Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - The Belgian government added butter to its list of banned foods on Monday, denying residents another key ingredient in their already depleted diets after cancer-causing dioxins were found in Belgian foods.

Leaders huddled in crisis session for a fourth straight day, while hundreds of butcher and baker shops closed because the government already has banned sales of Belgian poultry, eggs, fatty beef and pork, and all byproducts.

The food industry federation said the 11-day crisis over tainted animal feed already has cost producers $500 million.

The United States blocked European Union imports of pork and poultry, and countries from Switzerland to South Korea took similar actions against Belgian products.

The EU's executive Commission was negotiating with Belgium's government and assessing whether the list of more than 1,000 farms that used some of the 176,000 pounds of dioxin-laced animal feed was sufficient to start freeing up part of the Belgian food market again.

"The list is now final," said Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, ending days of insecurity. Now that the farms have been pinpointed, the government hopes it will be easy to trace any contaminated meat, eggs and byproducts.

Still, he told the nation, it could be another week before the government lifts the food bans.

The government and leading opposition parties also agreed to set up a special inquiry commission to investigate how the cancer-causing dioxins ended up on Belgian dinner plates so easily. Dioxin is a byproduct of the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides.

Meanwhile, the police investigation into the scandal suffered a setback early Monday when a court ordered the release of the only two suspects in the case, Lucien and Jan Verkest, who run an animal feed-fat production company, saying there was insufficient evidence to hold them. However, the two were again remanded into custody later Monday after prosecutors appealed.

"We still base our investigation on the Verkest firm because of the (dioxin) positive samples at three poultry farms. The only thing they have in common was the fat of Verkest," said prosecution spokeswoman Nicole De Roeck.

The source of the contamination is widely suspected to be mechanical oil added to the fattening oil for the feed. Investigators have ruled out an accidental leak and are looking into other ways it could have gotten into the feed, including tampering during transport.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the steak counter was closed on Monday and egg products were off the menu.

However, a French company admitted it had sold about a dozen tons of Belgian chicken suspected of being contaminated with dioxin. "It's completely our fault and we regret it," Alain Noel of the Pic company said.

Meanwhile, the list of countries banning Belgian products got longer.

South Korea banned the sale of Belgian, Dutch and French pork and poultry. Hong Kong banned beef and dairy products from the three nations and Germany.

Thailand banned meat, eggs and dairy products from Belgium, and Malaysia banned the same products from the European Union. Singapore suspended sales of all livestock and byproducts imported from any European country.

In Israel, Belgian products containing eggs, milk and meat were ordered to be removed from store shelves.

The scandal was also tearing at the center-left coalition ahead of Sunday's elections. The farm ministry has traditionally been a fiefdom of Dehaene's Christian Democrats and the Socialists said they were outraged the scandal could take so long to solve.

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

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