As public fears of dioxin-poisoned Belgian chickens and eggs spread across Europe, the European Union today ordered that a vast array of potentially tainted Belgian food products, including cakes, cookies, mayonnaise and pasta made with suspect eggs, be withdrawn from sale and destroyed.
The European Union acted after the Belgian government decided to ban the sale of all chicken- or egg-based foods after high levels of the carcinogenic chemical were found in animal feed sold to poultry farms by a Belgian processor.
The suspect shipments of animal feed date to mid-January. Belgian authorities reportedly were tipped to the problem three months later. But more than a month then elapsed before Belgian health and agriculture officials, confronted by press disclosures, admitted they had been investigating the reports but had not warned the public of the potentially fatal hazards of ingesting dioxin in the reported quantities -- which were as much as 1,500 times higher than the acceptable level.
To date, there have been no reported illnesses from the dioxin contamination.
The Belgian health and agriculture ministers resigned over the scandal Tuesday, 12 days before general elections that could now topple the ruling coalition.
The chickens, eggs and poultry byproducts suspected of contamination by the tainted feed originated in some 400 poultry farms, mostly in the Dutch-speaking Flanders portion of Belgium and in northeast France.
Health officials in Belgium believe that the feed manufacturer had used a batch of animal and vegetable oils, routinely added to the pellet mixtures fed to chickens, that had been laced with dioxin-contaminated motor oils. European officials reportedly are investigating the possibility that poisoned feed also was distributed to pork producers.
Pending today's action by the European Union, the French government had blocked the sale of chickens and eggs from the 30 French farms that bought the suspect feed. Greek authorities seized a 40-ton shipment of French chickens, while German, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Russian authorities slapped temporary bans on Belgian poultry imports.
Other countries' health officials said they were waiting for evidence that contaminated products had found their way into national food distribution systems. But enough time has passed for plenty of dioxin-tainted foods -- how much may never be known -- to have passed through the marketplace and into human alimentary systems.
The developing toxic food crisis -- dubbed "chicken a la dioxin" in the French media -- stirred recent memories of public hysteria, bureaucratic turmoil and European bickering over Britain's outbreak of "mad cow disease," suspected in 1996 of infecting beef-eating humans. The crisis forced Britain to slaughter tens of thousands of cattle and led the European Union to impose an export ban on British beef that has not yet been lifted.
The increasing interdependence of European nations as goods pass routinely across borders means that any food-related health problem in one country almost automatically becomes a health problem for the continent.