Another contamination scandal
European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli was on the phone recently with Ilse Aigner, German Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, discussing the latest dioxin food scandal. EU experts were due to meet last Tuesday to discuss the need for new legislation to prevent more dioxin contaminations.
Three days after Christmas, the European rapid alert system issued an alert when toxic oil was detected in animal feed that was subsequently supplied to farms in Germany, France and Denmark. The Netherlands and the UK were also notified over food products which might have derived from tainted eggs, pork and poultry.
Veterinary authorities suspect that industrial oil, similar to discarded engine lubricating oil, was added to the animal feed. How the dioxin-contaminated oil got into feed at a plant in Germany is the subject of current investigations.
It is suspected that a company mixed cheap technical fats into more expensive dietary fats to use in animal feed. Oil sourced from a Dutch plant, which was meant to be used for biofuel, was instead added to animal feed.
A crackdown against criminal food manufacturers was called for in the light of these suspicions, and the damage done by ‘black sheep’ in the industry was decried.
The European Animal Feed directive does permit recycled oils and fats in animal feed but only under a strict hazard management system. Last July, a European Food Safety Authority report on dioxins in food and animal feed noted that although dioxins have decreased, there is cause for continued concern because of their accumulation in the food chain.
Legally-binding limits on the presence of dioxin in food and animal feed have been in place for years, but unscrupulous members of the industry have failed to follow basic safety rules. On the other hand, veterinary authorities do not seem to be coping with their obligations to supervise the ‘farm to fork’ chain.
Feed given to animals in Malta does not appear to be at risk, although local products are being “constantly scrutinised to ensure high quality levels”, according to one source. Last October, Malta’s Steering and Action Committee for Europe, Meusac, issued a progress report on an ongoing EU strategy for these chemicals.
But according to ourfood.com, a database on food and related sciences, “almost everything” has been tried out as an ingredient in animal feed.
It is true that calcium is an important ingredient of feed for cows. But who would have imagined that, on at least one occasion, calcium oxide, a waste product from washing industrial smoke stack gases, had found its way into pellets fed toGerman cows?
The recent German contamination is said to be on a much smaller scale than the Belgian scandal, which spurred legislative measures 10 years ago. In 1999, discarded motor oil was mixed into animal feed in Belgium, leading to import bans and dioxin–tainted food being pulled off the market. That episode jolted the EU into setting maximum levels for dioxins in livestock feed.
But in 2008, a dioxin scandal which revealed high levels in mozzarella in an area near Naples, was not due to any deliberate additives in the feed. As The New York Times reported that year:
“Evidently, the Camorra, as the local mafia is known, is big into the business of getting rid of toxic waste generated by industrial plants in the country’s prosperous north, and does it very profitably by forgetting about environmental safeguards and just dumping or burning the stuff illegally in the countryside – where it leaches into the water and contaminates the pastures where the buffalo graze.”
Better ways to control industrial processes and limit formation of dioxins must be considered as a way to prevent exposure of humans and the environment. If dioxins are not produced in the first place, it is less likely that this toxic waste will find a hiding place in animal feed.
Dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of toxic chemicals which can impair the immune system, nervous system, endocrine system, and reproductive functions, and are suspected of causing cancer.
Most people have detectable levels of dioxin in their tissues. Accumulated over a lifetime, dioxin persists for years. They are classified by the World Health Organisation as probable human carcinogens and are notoriously difficult to get rid of.
The US environment protection agency views even background levels of dioxin as “uncomfortably close to levels that can cause subtle adverse non-cancer effects in animals and humans”.
Dioxins can be the unintended by-product of combustion and many manufacturing processes, and can also result from ‘natural’ sources such as forest fires, volcanoes, burning rubbish, fireplaces and cigarette smoke.
Commercial production of dioxin-like PCBs in the US by Monsanto Company started in 1929. This grew in response to the electrical industry’s demand for a cooling, insulating fluid for transformers and capacitors that was ‘safer’ (less flammable) than mineral oil. It was also used as a stabiliser in PVC coating for electrical wiring.
Alarm bells rang after a number of industrial accidents, and a conference on the hazards of PCBs was held in 1937. However, PCB manufacture and use continued with few restraints up until the 1970s.
Then in the early 1970s a researcher at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation published findings that PCBs were leaking from transformers and had contaminated the soil at the bottom of electricity poles.
Despite extensive regulatory actions and a ban on their production since the 1970s, PCBs still persist in the environment. Widely distributed throughout the environment in low concentrations, they do not break down easily.
Dioxins, stored in fat tissue or in the liver, pass down the food chain when an animal, which may have grazed on contaminated land or tainted feed, is eaten.
Concern over the toxicity and persistence of PCBs in the environment led the US Congress to ban domestic production in 1979, although some use continues in ‘closed systems’ such as capacitors and transformers. ‘Closed use’ in new equipment was banned three years later, but ‘closed use’ in existing equipment with capacities of over five litres was not stopped until December 2000.
It is unlikely that an accurate inventory of PCB production in Europe can be compiled as factories in Poland, Austria and the former East Germany produced unknown amounts until they were either or closed down.