German regional governments have closed 4,709 chicken, turkey and pig farms as a precaution after a scare over dioxin contamination of animal feed.
Most of the farms involved are in Lower Saxony, northwest Germany, and most of them raise pigs.
Until they've been checked and found clear of contamination, they will not be allowed to make any deliveries.
It was in Lower Saxony that 2,500 out of the 3,000 tonnes of contaminated fatty acids at the center of the alert were delivered in November and December, where they were used as animal fodder.
The firm Harles und Jentzsch is alleged to have supplied up to 3,000 tonnes of contaminated fatty acids meant only for industrial usage to around 25 animal feed makers. The German government has said that up to 150,000 tonnes of feed are feared to have been contaminated.
The second-most toxic chemical after radioactive waste, dioxin has been found in eggs and poultry in a number of German states and contaminated eggs have been exported to Britain and Holland.
A by-product of burning rubbish and industrial activities, dioxin can cause miscarriages and other health problems in humans, including cancer.
Harles & Jentzsch received toxic products from the Olivet company in the Netherlands. The Dutch food safety authority NWA has defended Olivet, saying it clearly marked the products for ‘technical purposes’.
The NWA said the 136,000 eggs (nine tonnes) imported from contaminated German farms no longer posed a risk. Only a very small amount had been processed by food companies before inspectors tracked down the eggs.
Last week, heightened levels of dioxin were found in eggs and chicken meat in the northwestern German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous.
Two shipments of eggs suspected of being contaminated were exported to Holland and Britain, the European Union said. Eleven of Germany's 16 states are now affected by the scare.
A squad of police, prosecutors and laboratory technicians has searched two Harles & Jentzsch premises and taken away heaps of paperwork and samples. The company is believed to have put into animal feed mixed technical fatty acids meant for paper manufacture.
A prosecutor said it has to be examined whether this was deliberate or careless. “The depiction that someone opened the wrong tap seems beyond belief to us,” said a government official.
A leader of a family farms movement sees the feed industry as “a criminal swamp that urgently needs to be drained”. Family farms president, Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, doesn’t believe in coincidences nor “mishaps” like “buckets tipped over” in production facilities. "We’re dealing here with a shadow industry in which criminals keep launching new far firms that systematically dilute heavily contaminated fats with less contaminated ones.”
The premier of Lower Saxony, David McAllister, called the perpetrators “criminal to a high degree”. But his government, whose agriculture minister has just resigned over an animal treatment scandal, is blamed by neighbour North-Rhine Westphalia for being too slow to act on the dioxin case.
The chairman of the federal conference of agriculture ministers, Jürgen Reinholz, called for tougher penalties for contaminators of feedstuffs. There’s now up to three years’ jail or a fine if human or animal foods are contaminated by health-damaging additions. Reinholz suggested that if there were penalties of six, eight or even ten years, many contaminators would think twice about risking that for the profit.
The German animal feed business is worth 7.5 billion euros a year, turned over by hundreds of companies with dozens of suppliers. Critics say systemic fraud rules, vehemently denied by representatives of the industry. 70 million tonnes of feed are fed to 128 million poultry, 27 million pigs and 13 million cattle every year. Mostly it’s under great price pressure because consumers want cheap meat. To produce as much mass as possible in the shortest possible time, fats are added, which causes the animals a tremendous energy surge.
The feed industry’s lobbyist sees this as an isolated case and speaks of a “black sheep” that could taint the reputation of the entire industry. The industry cites extensive checks but above all to voluntary self-policing. But it concedes that not every delivery can be checked.
Feed is the biggest cost for animal producing farmers. In poultry production it’s half the cost, in pig production up to two thirds. So farmers trying to keep their costs down have to save on feed.
"Whenever toxic materials can be sold as eatable, really big money is made,” observes Baringdorf. A spokeswoman for German Foodwatch notes: “It would be a simple regulation to say that anyone who mixes feed materials has to ensure that all ingredients are tested for dioxin before they are processed further.”
In industrial agriculture most farmers are tied firmly to a supplier and so have no more influence themselves on what their animals eat. “With that, they give away their responsibility at the farmyard gate,” comments organic farmer Baringdorf.
The head of the association of consumer protection centres, Gerd Billen, demands that retailers ensure there is no dioxin in foods. “I want to be able to shop safely again.” Customers don’t shop from feed merchants but from grocers, he notes. Billen says the association registers growing worry among consumers who are feeling more and more insecure. There is a renewed fall in trust in secure food and functioning controls.
Retailers point to close cooperation with authorities. Super market chains claim no dioxin was found in eggs they offered. Billen demands two immediate measures: ensuring that no more health-threatening foodstuffs are in circulation and gapless clarification of the reasons for the feed contamination. The association regards controls of food factories as outdated and wants them standardised nationally, which is not now the case.
The association demands that authorities be made to disclose more information to the public than now. Billen alleges that governments deliberately held back information about the dioxin until after Christmas although they knew about it before. The federal association of food inspectors points out that authorities are short of 1,500 government inspectors to police the food industry effectively. Now 2,500 inspectors are responsible for 1.1 million farms. In some areas one inspector was responsible for 1,200 businesses.
The federal agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, of the Bavarian CSU conservatives, insists present regulations are adequate.
The Greens are clamouring for the names of the feed suppliers to be released, which the government refuses because it would damage the firms which, it argues, by purchasing the contaminated feedstuffs became victims themselves. Yet again the dioxin scandal is demonstrating the reality of industrial-scale farming, the Greens say.
There’s concern that dioxin-containing chicken meat has got into the food chain in the state of Thuringia. The regional government doesn't know yet how bad the contamination was. But there was “no reason for great concern”. The farming ministry assumes the meat has been eaten in the festive period. 9.500 young pigs that ate the contaminated feed have already been sold on.
It’s still unclear who will pay for the farmers’ losses. The farmer federation demands compensation from the causers and new food and feed laws. Legal action would be taken against feed suppliers.
Consumer protectors are advising not to eat eggs or poultry. “Dioxins built up in fatty tissue and there is no immediately visible relationship between dose and effect,” said an expert.
The feed firm Harles und Jentzsch has denied a newspaper report about its imminent insolvency, saying they’re continuing to operate. They were currently not selling feed, but their ongoing trade in technical fatty acids was securing their existence.