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EC complacency on dioxins weakens Europe’s food safety standing

By Rory Harrington , 19-Jan-2011
Last updated on 19-Jan-2011 at 13:43 GMT

The complacency being exhibited by Brussels over the ongoing dioxin contamination incident is every bit as concerning as the carcinogenic chemical that has found its way into the food and feed chains since the end of last year.

Crisis, what crisis? Apparently there is none - if you believe the line being spun by the European Commission, and in particular the health and consumer protection commissioner John Dalli, over the dioxin scare gripping the economic bloc.

But if Europe’s reputation as the world leader in food safety is to be preserved, this attitude must be replaced by a firm commitment to introduce legislation to plug the security hole in the food to fork supply chain, along with an admission that there are important lessons are to be learned from this event.

However, far from acknowledging that the situation shows flaws still exist in the European Union’s excellent food safety system, Commissioner Dalli would have us believe the episode only serves to emphasise just how well it works.

Damning indictment

This is a half truth at best and, at worst, can only appear absurd given that eggs with illegal levels of dioxin have been eaten by consumers in the UK, the lost millions in revenues for German farms whose animals were culled and their premises banned from selling produce, not to mention reputational damage for European producers across the globe.

To recap on the situation, up to 200,000 tonnes of dioxin-tainted animal feed was put into circulation in late November after it appears that a German additive producer used fatty acids for industrial purposes in its production. This was sold to almost 5,000 farms in Germany, plus others in France and Denmark.

In a speech to the European Parliament on Monday, Dalli said the speed of detection of the tainted produce highlights the effectiveness of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). But by his own admission, the tainted feed ingredient, delivered in the second half of November, was not discovered until 21 December – a gap of up to five weeks.

More damningly, it has been suggested that the German firm had been illegally making the additive with industrial components since March 2010 – a full nine months before being caught. And the only reason the practice was revealed at all was because the latter batches contained dioxins. But for that, it is entirely likely the firm could have carried on for months or years without discovery.

That can only be a searing indictment of a regulatory system that aims to set the global benchmark for food safety.

Failure to act?

While the company at the centre of the allegations must bear huge responsibility for the problem, it is also clear that despite prior warnings over insufficient scrutiny of the fat and oils sector, a lack of regulatory oversight allowed that firm to believe its actions could go undetected.

Responsibility for this lies squarely with regulators and especially the European Commission as the region’s food safety leader.

The root of the problem lies with the fact that under European law companies can manufacture fats and oils for industrial and food purposes in the same plant.

That is worrying but concern about this is not new. In the aftermath of the 2008 Irish pork crisis – which came about after dioxin-tainted oil was used in the production of animal feed - the compound feed industry body Fefac said it raised the question of imposing a legal requirement to separate product flows to ensure this could not continue.

Why did the European Commission not act then on this suggestion from the group best-placed to identify points of risk?

The proposal from German authorities last week to implement such a measure is to be welcomed but critics can wonder why it has taken so long to come about. Dalli’s response that he was “exploring the possibility” and “considering” further legal requirements to boost dioxin controls is just not good enough.

What is he waiting for?

The European Union should be proud of its food safety structures. But they are not perfect and like all systems need constant improvement. By failing to acknowledge this, Commissioner Dalli is in danger of making the European Commission appear as the weak link in the food safety chain rather than the body leading the quest to strengthening it.

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