China has joined Taiwan and South Korea in suspending pork imports from Belgium and the Netherlands as the two countries attempt to minimise the damage to their meat industries due to the presence of dioxin contaminated feed.
China went a step further in banning imports from Germany, which has also been hit by the scare, though to a lesser extent than Belgium and the Netherlands.
The discovery of the carcogenic contaminant in animal feed has led to the quarantine of about 650 farms in the three countries.
While the trading suspension in the Asian countries means an opportunity for suppliers from other countries, it has put a black mark against Europe's efforts to ensure the safety of its meat and regain consumer confidence.
South Korea is the most important non-EU destination for pork produced in Belgium and the Netherlands. The two countries exported a total of 25,000 tonnes of pork worth about €62 million to South Korea in 2005.
In Belgium, where most of the contaminated feed was distributed, regulators have completed testing at 270 of the 400 quarantined pig farms.
Confirmed illegal dioxin levels were found in five pig farms so far. Another 28 farms are still being retested after a rapid method indicated that dioxin levels are above the legal limit, the country's food regulator stated today.
Meanwhile health authorities in the Netherlands this week began carrying out a preventative cull of about 3,500 pigs from 10 farms that bought animal feed suspected of containing high concentrations of dioxin.
Dutch supermarkets have joined farmers and feed makers' unions in calling for improved measures to prevent future dioxin contamination.
Last Friday Belgium extended a quarantine to a total of 386 pig and poultry producers suspected of receiving feed contaminated with the carcinogen, doubling the number the country's food safety agency (FAVV) had originally banned from the market. Of these 361 were pig farms, 24 were poultry farms, and one rabbit producer.
Tessenderlo, a feed ingredients company fingered as the source of the contamination, today said that an inadequate test had resulted in the error.
"For Tessenderlo Group, discussions about compensation and amicable settlements are premature as long as the various investigations are under way," the Belgium-based company stated. "The problem shows that the PCB test was inadequate for testing dioxins and that we were wrong, as were most specialists, to rely on it."
The discovery of the dioxin contamination was first reported by the Netherlands, which on 25 January sent out an EU-wide alert on pig fat originating from Belgium. The Netherlands said its tests indicated dioxin levels 25 time the maximum permitted concentrations in pork fat.
The dioxin was discovered in pork fat produced by Profat. FAVV said that between 6 and 28 October, two filters at Tessenderlo Chemicals were defective, resulting in untreated hydrochloric acid being delivered to its subsidiary, PB Gelatins. PB Gelatins in turn, supplied animal feed producers with dioxin contaminated ingredients.
FAVV found that that a normal consumption of such the gelatine produced by PB Gelatins is less than 25 per cent of the amount of acceptable dioxin consumption.
" That thus means that there is currently no immediate danger to the public health," the agency stated.
Belgium and the Netherlands, along with France and Germany, are among the top pig meat producers in the EU. The Netherlands accounted for about eight per cent of the EU's production in 2000, according to the bloc's figures.
Dioxin has been the cause of numerous food scares. It was found in Dutch potato animal feed in 2004. Pig farmers in the Netherlands were found to be using it as an illegal hormone for pigs in 2002.
Belgium's meat industry suffered a similar blow in 1999, when dioxin was discovered in pigs and chickens. Then, the industry lost millions of euros either through a quarantine of some 200 Belgian farms, or through the loss of their export markets after some countries imposed bans.
The country ended up slaughtering seven million chickens and 60,000 pigs. The scare, which occurred just before the 1999 general election, played a key part in the landslide defeat of the former government of Jean-Luc Dehaene.
In a related move the European Commission this week set maximum permitted levels for both dioxins and PCBs in food for the whole bloc.