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CNN, June 9, 1999

Belgium says world is overreacting, returns food to shelves

A Belgian firefighter discarded frozen meat -- possibly tainted by dioxin -- before the government said suspect food could return to store shelves   

June 9, 1999
Web posted at: 9:44 a.m. EDT (1344 GMT)

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- After 12 days of scrambling to find a decent meal, Belgians may soon find their store shelves restocked with chicken, beef and pork.

As of Wednesday, poultry farmers were free to slaughter chickens, and the government was expected to lift similar bans on the slaughter of pigs and cattle later today.

But it's unclear whether Belgians, or anyone else, will dare eat the food from the nation that has been tainted by a massive dioxin scare.

Two weeks ago, the government disclosed that large amounts of animal feed had been tainted by dioxin -- a cancer-causing chemical -- and began ordering stores to take chickens and eggs off the shelves. Soon the ban grew to include pork and cattle and dairy products.

The government decided Tuesday to begin lifting the bans, confident it had done enough to pinpoint the source and spread of dioxin-tainted feed. 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.

The lifting of the ban was expected to set off a race to have shop shelves look as normal as possible again by Sunday, when national elections will assess the performance of the embattled center-left government.

"Sunday may be saying a lot," said Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche. "Slowly, the situation will get back to normal."

Even if the domestic market is starved for a piece of local roast finished off with an egg-rich chocolate mousse, Belgian food is still unwelcome around the globe.

"We are maintaining a total ban," said French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner. "There is still uncertainty on the origins of the dioxin," he said echoing complaints from around the 15-nation European Union.

At an EU health ministers meeting Tuesday, EU nations harshly criticized the Belgian government for waiting a month before warning even the Belgian public that dioxin had leaked into the food chain.

"It was a scandal that the information was withheld," British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said.

Van den Bossche retorted that "it could happen to them each and every day too." He said controls on the basic products that go into animal feed are so insufficient that "I have to honestly tell you -- either we have been extremely lucky or we have eaten a lot in Europe without knowing what we were eating."

Two suspects from an animal feed-fat production firm remained behind bars in Belgium but Van den Bossche held out little hope all those responsible would ever be found.

The Belgian food industry association says the crisis has cost the country $500 million. And the dent in consumer confidence around the globe is getting bigger:

--An Egyptian ban on dairy and poultry from EU countries took effect Tuesday.

--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.

--Thailand added chocolate to the list of foods from Belgium that have been banned.

Copyright © 1999. Associated Press
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