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World - Americas

South Americans ban Belgian food on dioxin scare

June 9, 1999
Web posted at: 10:44 PM EDT (0244 GMT)

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -- Three of South America's most populous nations imposed bans on Belgian food imports on Wednesday in the wake of Europe's worst food scare since Britain's mad cow crisis three years ago.

Brazil, Argentina and Chile temporarily suspended imports of Belgian products from eggs to meat to chocolate after reports chickens on more than 2,000 Belgian farms tested positive for cancer-causing dioxin.

"We want to ensure we do everything we can to prevent any likelihood of dioxin contamination," Argentine Agriculture Secretary Ricardo Novo said.

No one at the Agriculture Department was immediately available to say how much Belgian food is imported by Argentina, the world's fifth largest food exporter.

"We have a lot of problems because local media's been saying wheat, flour and corn products are banned and importers have been phoning all day," a trade officer at the Belgian Embassy in Buenos Aires said in French.

Chile's imports from Belgium are virtually nil but it too imposed a ban on chickens, eggs and livestock feed.

Brazil, which has more cattle than people, imports about 130 tons of meat from Belgium on average per quarter, minimal compared to its own beef exports of 377,000 tons last year.

"Anything of animal origin, even chocolate, is suspended," a Brazilian Agriculture Ministry official said, adding that Brazil imports very little from Belgium.

"The ministry is examining where the (Belgian powdered) milk went and whether it will be pulled off the market," he added.

The Belgian food scare emerged during a transatlantic dispute over European agricultural subsidies with Mercosur, a trade association of which Brazil and Argentina are two members and Chile is an associate.

Brazilian citrus pulp, commonly used in dairy feed, was banned in the European Union last year after high levels of dioxin were found in milk and the source was traced back to the dominant South American agricultural producer.

Another food scare in 1996 forced all UK-beef products off the shelves of shops in Europe and led to a world-wide search for the tainted British meat.

Other South American nations such as Venezuela and Peru said they did not plan to ban Belgian imports since they do not purchase any agricultural products from there but Peru said it is monitoring the situation.

Dioxin is used in herbicides and pesticides and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards show 0.001 micrograms of dioxin per kilo of body weight is considered safe. Anything above that level is dangerous.

The chemical contaminated a storage tank of Belgian oils and fats processing company Verkest, near Ghent, in mid-January. The tainted animal feed has since been traced across Belgium and on some farms in France and the Netherlands.

Copyright 1999 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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