Chad Roper

Dioxin-related food safety disasters have regularly cropped up in the media over the past decade. Perhaps the most devastating scare for the food industry was a 1999 debacle in Belgium. The crisis involved food oil, used as an additive for numerous products, that was found to contain dangerously high levels of dioxins. As a result, a number of European food products were banned by the United States and most of Europe, resulting in financial losses and political repercussions across the continent.

Dioxins are a group of toxic chemical compounds that are a by-product of industrial processes. They are pervasive in the environment, accumulating in human and animal organs and fatty tissue. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 95% of human dioxin exposure comes from dietary intake of animal fat. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, dioxin exposure can lead to increased cancer rates, reproductive and developmental problems, increased heart disease, and increased diabetes in humans. In June 2002, EPA reported that two-thirds of Americans face an increased cancer risk as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals like dioxins.

On July 1, the European Union acted to mitigate these risks by imposing tough limits on the levels of dioxins in food and feed. The regulations, which were devised in the aftermath of the Belgian dioxin fiasco in 1999, will affect U.S. exports of animal by-products, cereals, feed and feed ingredients, fish and fish products, milk and milk products, eggs and egg products, oils, fats, fruits, and vegetables.

The U.S. does not enforce dioxin limits in food or feed—a curious situation, given the pervasiveness of this potent toxin. But the EU’s bellwether regulations should change attitudes on this side of the Atlantic. EPA, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration have noted that EU dioxin testing and the probability of penalties for U.S.-based food exporters will likely increase over the next few years.

Therefore, U.S. food exporters must begin testing their products before shipping them to the EU to ensure safe levels of dioxin and to stave off European regulatory action. Exporters of foods with high fat content in particular are at risk of exceeding EU limits. The new regulations affect a big business: the U.S. exported more than $3.5 billion worth of food to the EU in 2000 and 14,171 metric tons of dairy products high in fat—and therefore potentially high in dioxin—in 2001.

Most food producers and exporters in the U.S. do not currently test for dioxins. While many existing analytical tests are prohibitively expensive, much less expensive screening tests are now available. One way to meet EU requirements at lower cost would be to adopt dioxin screening procedures. Screens identify whether or not dioxin levels meet EU criteria at a much lower cost than full-blown analytical tests, which provide more information than the EU requires. Screens can reduce the cost of compliance by 50% or more.

Now that the EU has set the global standards for dioxin levels in food, should the U.S. government follow suit? While doing so may cause some temporary discomfort for the food industry, the answer is a resounding yes. Enacting standards to match the EU standards would not only protect the general population from the health dangers of dioxins, but would also protect the food industry from the financial and public relations repercussions of a major dioxin scare.

Despite industry resistance, it appears that the U.S. will eventually catch up with Europe on this issue. In fact, the first steps in this direction have already been taken. The 1996 Food Safety Act required companies to set up their own Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan to monitor their food products. More recently, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service began testing meat and poultry to determine if dioxin levels in these products are above acceptable limits. In addition, FDA, EPA, and the National Academy of Sciences are all examining dioxins in the food supply.

Given the risks that dioxins pose to human health, it is remarkable that testing is just now being required. The EU’s decision to correct this omission signals the end of an era. While the U.S. food industry may fear the financial impact of dioxin regulations, such laws are necessary to protect the health of both the population and the food industry itself.

by Chad Roper is Director of Business Development, Triangle Laboratories Inc., 2445 S. Alston Ave., Durham, NC 27713.