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FOCUS-Chicken,eggs back in Belgian shops, Coke out

Reuters Story - June 12, 1999 10:35

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(Adds gas blast at market stall, in last two paragraphs)

By Amelia Torres

BRUSSELS, June 12 (Reuters) - Eggs and meat banned in Europe's latest food scare were back in Belgium's shops on Saturday, but as chicken, pork and beef filled some shelves others were emptied of soft drinks made by U.S. giant Coca-Cola.

The Belgian unit of Coca-Cola Co told retailers to clear batches of Coke, Sprite and Fanta after the government ordered a ban because several dozen children had become ill.

The new scare could not have come at a worse time for the government as it struggles to regain consumer confidence in the food industry and in its own ability to protect public health ahead of Sunday's general election.

Coca-Cola and the authorities are still investigating the cause of health complaints in schoolchildren, mostly in the north of the country, who have suffered from headaches, nausea and shivering. Several have been treated in hospital since Tuesday.

Coca-Cola Belgium recalled more than 2.5 million bottles and cans and said the cause might be a nauseating smell coming from the containers themselves, while the quality of the drinks was not affected.

But the firm and the government took no risks and ordered back cans and 20-centilitre glass bottles originating from two northern plants and a factory in Dunkirk, France.

"Neither the Belgian food inspection services nor Coca-Cola know the origin of the problem," Belgian Health Minister Luc Van Den Bossche said late on Friday.

Maureen O'Sullivan, a spokesman for Coca-Cola Belgium and Luxembourg said on Saturday: "The measures are relatively draconian but what is important is that consumers are reassured by the joint decision taken by Coca-Cola and the Belgian government."

Restoring consumer confidence was also the main concern of Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene as he announced on Friday that fresh Belgian chicken, pork, beef and products such as butter and sausages could go on sale from Saturday.

This followed a finding by European Union veterinarians that the Belgian scare over contamination by cancer-causing dioxin was under control. They approved a single health certificate for meat from unaffected farms and processing companies.

Belgian exports of chocolates and other food products are unlikely to resume fully for the time being, as the Commission's formal authorisation to lift a sales ban is only expected on Wednesday. Other EU members and the United States remain suspicious of Belgian-labelled food.

On Friday, the U.S. authorities said they would block imports of eggs and egg-containing products from Belgium, France and the Netherlands, which imported animal feed from a Belgian company at the centre of the crisis.

"One thing is to certify (that the products are safe), another thing is for foreign sales to resume. We must regain consumer confidence," Dehaene said on Friday night, asking Belgians "to show proof of patriotism" and buy local products.

In a separate development, people queueing to buy roast chicken at a market stall in the northern city of Antwerp were hurt when a gas cyclinder exploded on Saturday, Belgian news agency Belga said.

It quoted the public prosecutor's office in the city as saying 25 people were injured and two were in a critical condition. The blast was caused by a gas leak.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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