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The global trading community is reeling from the recent Belgian dioxin crisis, which is widely perceived as the worst food crisis since the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) episode. The steadily deteriorating genetically modified crops situation and the dioxin crisis mushroomed out of a society that is by now acculturized to distrust government regulators, academicians, and even science itself.
The Belgian crisis began in mid-January 1999, when a storage tank containing animal fat became heavily contaminated with dioxin. The vat belonged to Verkest, an animal fat processing firm in Deinze, Flanders. The contaminated product was sold to 11 animal feed producers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. The finished feed made with the contaminated fat contained approximately 700 times the allowable concentration of dioxin.
The authorities found out about the problem not by testing, not by inspection, but by the rumor mill—chickens were dying and egg production was plummeting in March. In an effort to elucidate the cause of the problem, the usual gamut of substances were tested, and feed was identified as the culprit. Two top Verkest executives were arrested and indicted for fraud and falsification of documents.
The process of detecting the dioxin and bringing the perpetrators to justice took 5–10 weeks. At no point during the evidentiary phase was a public warning issued or the required official communique sent to European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Once notified, the EU acted with dispatch, albeit in fits and starts. On June 2, the EU notified the Europeans that chicken, eggs, and products containing these substances were being subjected to safeguards and restrictions. Two days later, the order was extended to pork and beef. Several days later, milk and other dairy products were included.
The inevitable investigation into the matter was initiated on June 2 and completed on June 16. The cause of the contamination was not clear, but the working hypothesis was a leak in the heating system or a mistake in the collection of oils. The latter possibility represents a euphemism for substituting crankcase oil or similar products for edible oils. The investigation team predictably recommended improved animal feed legislation. They also chastised the Belgian authorities.
The magnitude of alarm in Europe was unprecedented but was fueled by latent hostility from the BSE debacle. Food boycotts, lugubrious news reports, and political instability in affected member states made this as big a story as the Balkan crisis in many European capitals.
Consumer reaction led to the immediate resignations of Belgium’s Ministers of Health and Agriculture. The Dutch Agriculture Minister and his deputy also resigned. And the Premier of Belgium was voted out of office in the general election on June 13 after having served longer than any other premier in Europe.
Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the United Kingdom issued emergency orders and urged consumers not to eat certain foods from Belgium. Outside the EU, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Poland, Russia, and South Korea suspended all or part of their food trade with Europe in general. Most telling were the United States restrictions, which were similar to the comprehensive reaction taken in 1988 against “all things British” to safeguard America against the BSE threat.
What are the lessons to be learned? The hormone ban showed, and continues to show, that the European political establishment well remembers Marat, who said, “I must see where the crowd is going so I can lead them.” The kind of dissembling that was required to erect this artificial trade barrier has left a legacy of confusion and mistrust that made the European public ripe for the kind of unreasoned outrage with which they greet each new food scare.
The danger inherent in the culture of fear that has pervaded Europe is not the fear itself but the loss of an appropriate food safety focus. Virtually all the regulatory energy in Europe is being devoted to endless fantasizing about genetically modified crops, while real risks proceed unresearched, unnoticed, and unregulated. Most Europeans cannot name the food regulatory agency that is protecting them. Is it not about time for Europe to set up its own Food and Drug Administration with science as its raison d’etre and real risk management as its mandate, replete with a cadre of three or four thousand professional scientists and an equal number of enforcement personnel?
It is my considered opinion that then and only then will the food fright chaos abate in Europe. The U.S. has an enormous stake in this matter and should offer professional assistance where possible, because the contagion infecting the European psyche may prove transmissible by sea. That would be an acculturation we could live without.
by Lester M. Crawford is Director, Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20007.