German Egg Scare: Are Lax Food-Safety Laws to Blame?

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Ina Fassbender / Reuters

A worker at a food control institute in Germany analyzes eggs, suspected to be contaminated with dioxin.

Omelets are off the menu in Germany, which has been rocked by a food contamination scare after high levels of the poisonous chemical dioxin were discovered in eggs. Now there are fears that the scandal is spreading, as authorities also find the toxin in poultry and other countries start banning the import of German foodstuffs. The scare has panicked German authorities and shattered consumer confidence. In a country that prides itself on upholding strict food-safety regulations, people are asking whether those standards are high enough.

The scandal first broke on Dec. 23, when random testing exposed high levels of dioxin in animal feed in western Germany. Authorities then carried out thousands of tests on eggs, and found that those from several farms contained excessive levels of the toxic chemical. Dioxins, which are formed by burning waste and other industrial processes, have been shown to lead to higher cancer rates and to affect pregnant women. The German government was quick to note that the dioxin levels in the eggs aren't high enough to pose a threat to human health, but the scare escalated over the Christmas season, resulting in the culling of thousands of hens and, farmers say, up to $70 million dollars in losses every week.

By the first week of January, news of the contaminated food had raised alarm bells elsewhere. British supermarkets have withdrawn some food products from their shelves, including cakes and quiches, which are believed to have been made with German eggs. South Korea has suspended pork imports, and Slovakia has suspended sales of German eggs and poultry. Meanwhile, in Germany, over the past week authorities have halted sales of eggs, poultry and pork from 4,700 farms in eight states, with Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein being the worst hit, as they carry out more testing. By Jan. 8, there was some good news, as the quarantine on 500 dairy farms was lifted after tests on butter, milk and cheese showed no contamination. But late Sunday, the federal Agriculture Ministry told TIME that 1,635 farms remain closed.

Up to 3,000 tons of contaminated animal feed were traced back to a firm that distributes oils for use in animal-feed production. Government officials say polluted fats from the manufacturer Harles and Jentzsch, based in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, may have been used in making up to 150,000 tons of animal feed, served mainly to chickens. According to the authorities, the contaminated oil contained up to 77 times the legal limit of dioxin. Local officials say they have evidence that the manufacturer may have started shipping the tainted fat as far back as March 2010, adding that tests conducted by the company last year had uncovered high dioxin levels, but the findings weren't passed on to the authorities. Police raided the firm's headquarters on Jan. 5, and state prosecutors have launched a criminal inquiry. TIME's requests to the firm for comment were denied, but the chief executive Siegfried Sievert told Spiegel TV on Jan. 7 that his company "didn't use any fats which were not allowed" and that it is working closely with investigators.

As German government officials continue to try to reassure the public that the dioxin levels aren't dangerous, consumer groups accuse authorities of playing down the risk to human health and are calling for tougher regulations to be imposed on the animal-feed industry. Under current legislation, animal-feed manufacturers aren't obliged to check dioxin levels in their product. "Every animal-feed manufacturer should be forced to carry out dioxin tests and report results of excessive levels to the authorities," Christiane Gross, a spokeswoman for Germany's consumer campaigning group, Foodwatch, tells TIME. "The government has to stop protecting the interests of the animal-feed industry and start protecting the health of consumers." Other consumer advocates have urged a major overhaul of Germany's food-safety legislation. "We need a centralized system of controls over the food industry and tighter regulations and sanctions," says Christian Fronczak, spokesman for the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.

As new details continue to emerge in the dioxin scandal, German shoppers are scaling back their purchases of eggs and poultry, with many switching to organic eggs — which, experts say, aren't affected because the animal feed at the center of the scare is not allowed in organic farming. A survey published in Focus magazine on Jan. 8 found that one in three Germans is switching to organic eggs and meat — and one in five say they're going to give up eating eggs altogether.

On Monday, Germany's Agriculture Minister, Ilse Aigner, held talks with food industry representatives and farmers to discuss measures to combat the crisis. Aigner told a news conference in Berlin that the scandal had caused "immense" costs and said the government would examine stepping up controls over animal-feed suppliers. "There's no reason to panic, but there's no cause for complacency," Aigner told reporters. "The people who did this were irresponsible and unscrupulous." And with hundreds of farms across the country believed to have received the contaminated animal feed, this scandal promises to grip Germany for some time.