German consumers scared, farmers battered by dioxin in animal feed



Germans across the country are feeling threatened by their food supply after the second strongest poison after nuclear waste, dioxin, was found in eggs and meats. It’s unclear how much contaminated food has been eaten. But sales of eggs and pork have plunged since the scandal broke at New Year. First estimates have eggs down 20%, pork and poultry 10% each. The kilo price of pork crashed.

Organic products are booming, clean eggs getting scarce. The organic trade organisation reports egg sales up by almost half, poultry sales by 30%. About a fifth of German farming is organic, as are about a quarter of the foods retyailed.


But despite the scandal, only one out of five Germans want concentration on organic farming: 21% of 1,000 told opinion researchers they want the broadest possible switch to it; 76% want more promotion of conventional farming to constrain food prices.


China and South Korea have banned imports of German pork. British supermarkets are shunning German eggs. Slovakia has banned sales of German eggs, poultry and pork, Japan has ordered stricter checks of all three. Russia from 24 January will restrict imports of German pork and live pigs and is flagging a total ban until Germany has a convincing anti-dioxin regime in place. German farmers earn every fifth euro abroad, the food industry every fourth. Great growth potential is seen in China. The Federation of German Food and Drink Industries fears drastic losses of export sales if the dioxin problem isn’t fixed fast.


Young Lower Saxonian farmers are worried about their future because the prices of pigs ready for slaughter have crashed by a quarter. An average farm stands to lose 40,000 euros this year.


The dioxin got into the food chain through animal feed believed to have been criminally mixed with illegal industrial fat which is a byproduct of so-called biodiesel.


On Friday 21 January 589 of originally nearly 5,000 farms were still banned from trading. On Saturday 22 January more than 120 organisations from across the country took tens of thousands of people to demonstrate in Berlin, the capital, for a turning away from industrialised farming, which they see in genetic technology, animal factories and food enterprises. (For a German IMC report about it click this.) Organisers claim 22,000, other observers saw half that number. The protesters included consumers, farmers, beekeepers, environment and food safety activists. The protest procession through the government quarter was led by 80 farm tractors. (Film of the demo.)


Hobbled by their only regionally valid laws, German states are arguing with each other over who’s to blame for the poison having spread so far. There’s a right-royal argument about the source of the contamination and which regional and national governments failed to act and inform speedily and thoroughly enough over the holiday break.


Experts in North-Rhine Westphalia state argue that dioxin got into the animal feed through old cooking fat, such as used in deep-frying (fish and chips, e.g.). Citing a chemicals and veterinary testing agency’s work, the state’s farms minister names raw materials used for biodiesel, such as deep-frying fats that are cleaned and distilled.


North-Rhine Westphalia has just lifted the trading ban on the last of more than 40 originally proscribed farms, claiming nothing was known about contaminated farm products having been traded. Inspectors in the state found dioxin in three egg samples and in one sample of laying hen flesh. The Federal Environment Office believes the source has yet to be found because none of the samples it tested matches any of its references.

A Berlin newspaper had reported that the feed producer, Harles und Jentzsch, seen as the main villain in the piece, since March last year apparently regularly mixed dioxin-contaminated fatty acids in with other feed ingredients and on a much larger scale than known so far. The paper quoted the Lower Saxony consumer protection and food safety authority. But German investigators’ suspicion also falls on a Dutch biodiesel producer, Petrotec, for failing to mark its deliveries to Harles und Jentzsch as “unfit for animal feed”.


New official calculations suggest that up to 125,000 tonnes of dioxinized feed went to nearly 5,000 farms across Germany, most of them in Lower Saxony. Its farms minister is pondering how farms in that northeastern state can be better protected. The state now employs 14 food inspectors and the minister is considering retraining other officials to add to them. Lower Saxony would also spend millions on building a dioxin laboratory. The state denies that the spread is much bigger than stated so far. Its farms ministry insists that all knowledge of suspicious feed and all test outcomes have been published.

The national agriculture minister, Ilse Aigner, of the ultra-conservative and strongly pro-farmer Bavarian CSU party, has been savagely criticised for her handling of the scandal. She’s promised to fast-track an action plan for greater food safety but not just consumers reject her actions as eyewash and too little, too late.


And the animal feed industry says they’re working on a broader testing regime for animal feed fats because the frequency of checks “appeared insufficient”. The industry’s lobby group distanced itself from Harles und Jentzsch in Schleswig-Holstein state.


Aigner says she wants stricter checks and more rules for the feed industry. She demands standardised checks on feedstuffs across the nation and standardisation across Europe. She intends to publish the names of all contaminators of feed on the internet in future. Aigner called for all who’d deliberately traded dioxin-contaminated feedstuffs to be brought to book.


One of Aigner’s responses is to offer cheap loans to farmers damaged by the dioxin scandal to tide them over the difficult period. To shore up the pork price, the European Union is also flagging a scheme to pay farmers to store their pork privately until prices are recovered enough to sell it. Farmer president Gerd Sonnleitner said he would lobby hard until insurers compensated farmers who unwittingly got contaminated for the damage caused to them. Presently farmers missed out if the causer of the damage was insolvent, which is the case with Harles und Jentzsch. Sonnleitner calls for animal feed producers to pay into a farmer compensation fund yet to be set up.


North-Rhine Westphalia is demanding implementation of all proposals this year. Feed producers seem ready for tighter registration rules but are sceptical about a duty to report test results of higher than allowed contaminations on the internet.


The opposition Greens are calling for Aigner’s resignation. They charge that a minister who doesn’t recognise the structural problem of German agriculture and instead reduces the dioxin problem to the criminal actions of individuals is in the wrong job. The Social Democrat opposition wants stronger protection for informers in the food and feed industries, for example those wanting to report feed contamination to authorities. Without protection for informants, nothing would be achieved in “this cartel of cover-up specialists”, their parliamentary whip said.


Calling the dioxin scandal the worst assumable disaster for farmers, Sonnleitner says they will lose 100 million euros from animals being culled and from being stopped from trading, but many times more than that from drops in sales of their products. Because just a few people in the feed industry had acted criminally, all of agriculture was now being demonised. The scandal had strongly depressed the prices of farm goods, farmers losing sales in the double digits, he said.


Sonnleitner demanded severe punishment for those responsible. “There must be no mercy for these evildoers.” Their businesses must be permanently shut and they must be forever banned from working in the industry. Minister Aigner assumes they contaminated deliberately for profit and prosecutors are investigating.


The head of the publicly-funded association of consumer protection centres, Gerd Billen, commented that at the moment it looked as if leftovers and rubbish of any kind were being mixed in with feedstuffs. He wants national and Europe-wide standardised food checks and the German regional states stripped of their powers in this area. Governments had relied too much on industry’s self-controls, Billen said.


The head of the consumer organisation, Foodwatch, author of several books on food scandals and a former head of Greenpeace, Thilo Bode, bagged the federal government as “a servant” of the animal feed industry. It had failed gravely in this case, he said.


Bode demands obligatory dioxin tests of every feed ingredient. He alleges that Germans and other Europeans now take in 80% of their dioxin deposits through food, whereas incineration of waste used to be the main dioxin contaminator. Bode sees only the tip of an iceberg in the current scandal.


“Government food checks are irrelevant and would be even if they were increased. We have about 1,700 feed companies in Germany and many more works. The state’s controllers take about the same number of samples to check for dioxin. That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. What has to happen is that every feed producer is obliged to test every lot of a feed ingredient for dioxin, document the result and report breaches to the authorities. That is the only way to stop the creeping dioxin poisoning of the population through animal feed.”


Much media attention is being given to 58-year-old Siegfried Sievert, the CEO of Harles und Jentzsch . Berlin newspapers have discovered in the archives on the former communist East German secret police, the Stasi, that Sievert spied for them for 18 years since his high school days as an ‘informal employee’. Hundreds of thousands of such informers spied on their families, neighbours, workmates, anyone, for payment or because they were pressured to or both. The documents on Sievert paint a picture of a ruthless, unscrupulous man focused above all on his own profit. Sievert used to manage an oil mill in East Germany. When East Germany ceased to exist, he went west, joining the feed producer Harles & Jentzsch in 1993. By 2005 he was their sole chief executive and within five years increased turnover from 4.3 to 20 million euros and quadrupled profit. A feed mixer from Lower Saxony commented to Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper, BILD: “Such growth is not possible with normal methods.”


When people in Europe hear dioxin they think of Seveso, a village 20 kilometres from Milan, Italy, where it escaped into the atmosphere from an industrial plant in 1976, permanently disfiguring the skin of 200 people.


What makes dioxin so scary is its long half-life. The chemical accumulates in fatty tissue and takes an enormously long time to exit again. The most toxic variety has half-gone after seven years, the slowest exiting one needs 20. When held in fat, dioxins are inactive. But if the body draws on its fat reserves the dioxins are also set loose and inundate the body.


As the scandal raged, the 10-day International Green Week, which touts itself as “the world's biggest fair for food, agriculture and horticulture”, opened in Berlin on Friday 21 January. Representatives from 50 countries will there discuss commodities speculation and world food supply. Aigner wants to get them on board for uniform global food production standards.


And finally, related but not specifically connected criticism by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) that a third of all food finishes up as rubbish. It isn’t sensibly transported, nor processed in time nor cooled, WWF said. It’s scientifically estimated that worldwide agriculture produces 4,600 kilocalories per day, of which 1,400 kilocalories doesn’t reach a stomach.


Click here for earlier story on this.

For reporting in English by the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, click this.