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AP, June 8, 1999

Belgium says world overreacted

LUXEMBOURG (AP) - Belgium accused the world Tuesday of ''overreacting'' to its tainted food scandal and prepared to lift restrictions on most of the foods it had pulled off the shelves.

But the European Union continued to call for further steps to contain the crisis, and retained its ban on all products made with Belgian poultry, eggs, pork and beef. Many other countries maintained wholesale bans on such products from across the EU.

''We are maintaining a total ban,'' French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said after a meeting of EU health ministers. ''There is still uncertainty on the origins of the dioxin. ... The information is extremely imprecise.''

EU health ministers spoke of their ''grave concern about the loss of trust among citizens,'' squarely blaming Belgium, said Andrea Fischer, the German health minister who chaired the meeting.

Belgium Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche defended his country's handling of the crisis, which was reportedly caused by animal feed tainted with the carcinogen dioxin.

''This could happen anywhere in Europe. Maybe this has happened already all over Europe but we didn't see the peaks we had in Belgium,'' he said.

The Belgian government reportedly knew of the dioxin contamination a month before informing the EU two weeks ago.

Van den Bossche said the worst of the scandal was over, the government would identify the farms that had used the contaminated feed and up to 95% of the banned food would be allowed back onto the market.

Belgium said the dioxin contamination had been limited to 175,000 pounds of feed distributed in late January. Many of the suspect farms had tested negative for dioxin, authorities said.

Van den Bossche said Belgium's EU partners had ''overreacted'' as had others nations from the United States to Singapore, which imposed even tougher measures.

The Belgian food industry association says the crisis has cost the country $500 million. Even if Belgium restores the domestic market by Sunday, the export sector remains off limits and consumer confidence in Belgium products has been harmed across the globe.

And countries continued to ban or restrict Belgian food Tuesday.

An Egyptian ban on dairy and poultry imports from EU countries took effect Tuesday. Authorities on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten pulled Belgian food products off market shelves.

Bulgarian authorities returned 20 tons of ham to Belgium and confiscated 200 tons of chicken, media there reported Tuesday.

The Philippines banned poultry, beef and pork products imported from Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

Philippines Agriculture Secretary Edgardo Angara said the move was a ''precautionary measure'' and would last until ''such time that the analytical data ruling out contamination are provided.''

Officials in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, found Belgian-made sausages floating in the Tura River in the capital, Tbilisi.

Georgian authorities warned shop owners and market vendors not to dump the meat in rivers, saying that could damage wildlife and sources of many residents' drinking water.

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