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Sales from 4,700 German farms halted over dioxins

- Associated Press - Friday, January 7, 2011

BERLIN (AP) — German authorities have stopped more than 4,700 farms from selling their meat and eggs as a precautionary measure after animal feed was found to be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.

South Korea and Slovakia on Friday halted the sale of some animal products imported from Germany, while authorities in Britain and the Netherlands were investigating the extent of contamination in products containing German eggs.

Germany's Agriculture Ministry said Friday it had no immediate reports of health problems connected to the contaminated products, but that it was stopping the sale of products from farms until tests can be carried out on livestock.

"This strategy is resulting in an a high number of closed farms that in the course of testing and clarification in the coming days will be reduced," Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said in a statement.

Ministry spokesman Holger Eichele said that test results were expected later in the day over whether traces of dioxin had been found in milk or meat in two of the states where the contaminated feed was delivered to several farms.

He said that most recent tests on eggs from farms where livestock is known to have consumed the contaminated feed, "two-thirds have been clean and about one-third have been right on the border of what is considered dangerous."

Chris Elliott, an expert in food safety at Queens University, Belfast, said that so far the danger to consumers appeared to be limited.

"The concentrations detected in this case are above the legal tolerance limits, but only just. That tells you that the potential risk of harm from these eggs is very low," Mr. Elliott said.

Authorities believe some 150,000 tons of feed for poultry and swine containing industrial fat has been fed to livestock across Germany. The fat contains dioxins and should not have been in the food.

Prosecutors in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein have launched an investigation into the company Harles & Jentzsch GmbH on suspicion that it knew of possible dioxin traces but failed to alert authorities.

Dioxins are contaminants that typically result from industrial combustion and other chemical processes. Exposure to dioxins at high levels is linked to increased incidence of cancer.

In 1999, dioxin from motor oil that was mixed into animal feed in Belgium led to a withdrawal of food products and widespread import bans. Quality controls on animal feed were also put in place as a result.

The German scandal broke on Monday when excessive dioxin levels were discovered in eggs from chickens in the west of the country, and it has continued to spread. More than 8,000 chickens were ordered culled and about 1 percent of the country's farms has been affected.

Ministry spokesman Mr. Eichele denied a German media report that the contaminated feed had been fed to livestock for months before the dioxin was discovered, saying that was based on misunderstood dates. Authorities are trying to determine how long the contaminated feed has been in circulation.

Farmers are demanding compensation for losses they are estimating at $52 million to $79 million per week.

Mr. Eichele said it was too early to determine the damage to farmers or the economy.

"We first need to find out what led to this," Mr. Eichele said. "It needs to be cleared, then we need to see how severe the damage is and then how we can best help those farmers who have been affected."

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