German prosecutors investigating the company responsible for contaminating animal feed with toxic dioxin may bring criminal charges against the firm, an agriculture ministry spokesman said on Friday.
The health scare over eggs from German farms where hens ate the tainted feed deepened when the state government in northern Schleswig-Holstein said some animal feed had been contaminated since March -- nine months longer than previously thought.
Operations at 4,700 German farms were shut down and thousands of hens culled in eight German states to try to prevent food supplies being contaminated by tainted animal feed sent to poultry and hog farms.
German authorities said earlier this week that 3,000 tonnes of feed had been contaminated, but at that stage they believed dioxin-tainted feed had been produced for only a few weeks. Dioxins are highly toxic compounds formed by burning waste and other industrial processes. They have been shown to affect pregnant women and contribute to higher cancer rates.
One sample of feed analysed in Schleswig-Holstein contained 77 times the legal limit of dioxin, according to figures from the state ministry of agriculture.
Authorities traced the origin of the feed contamination to a Schleswig-Holstein distributor of oils for animal feed production, which distributed fatty acids meant for industrial use to animal feed processors.
State prosecutors are investigating the firm, Harles und Jentzsch, and an agriculture ministry spokesman said criminal charges were among the options being considered.
Eggs from some farms using the feed were exported to Britain and the Netherlands for food processing, according to German and European Union authorities, but officials have said the eggs pose little health risk to consumers.
German officials will brief their EU counterparts on the contamination in Brussels next week, and the incident could lead to new EU rules on industrial and animal feed oils.
European Commission health spokesman Frederic Vincent said on Thursday that some eggs from affected farms in Germany had been found to contain up to five times the legal EU limit for dioxin, but said this did not pose a risk to human health.
"Two thirds of eggs tested have mimimal amounts of dioxin and one third are at or slightly above the legal limit," a German Agriculture Ministry spokesman said on Friday.
Farms in Lower Saxony could reopen by next week, said Friedrich-Otto Ripke, state secretary for agriculture and consumer protection. About 4,500 farms have been closed in Lower Saxony, the hardest hit state.
Aigner will meet the national farmers' body on Monday to discuss the economic damage.
Gerd Sonnleitner, head of the German Farmers' Association, told a regional newspaper that total farming losses amounted to between 40 million and 60 million euros a week.
Despite frightening headlines in the media, German consumers remained calm.
Only 4 percent of people polled by state broadcaster ARD said they had stopped eating eggs, while two thirds said they saw no reason to change their eating or shopping habits.
The Federation of German Consumer Organizations said it did not yet see a need to tell the public to avoid eggs. "At the moment the decision is up to consumers," said spokesman Steffen Kuessner.
ReutersLast Mod: 08 Ocak 2011, 09:30