No health risks from dioxin in foods, says German government agency


A German government agency, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), has given the all-clear in the dioxin food contamination that has rocked the country for weeks and made some countries stop importing German foods like eggs, poultry and pork. “Consumers do not have to worry,” is the summary of the BfR’s assessment of health risks “on the basis of the measured content in eggs, pork meat, poultry meat and dairy products”.


“The contamination of feeds with dioxins has considerably upset consumers. In the meantime the public authorities of the federal Laender as well as members of the specialist organisations of the agricultural sector have analysed numerous samples of eggs, meat, dairy products and feedstuffs to determine their dioxin contents.

“Only in a few cases the measured content in eggs, meat of laying hens and pork meat are above the statutory maximum amounts. For dairy products and poultry meat no exceeding was determined.

“The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has assessed the health risk for consumers on the basis of these data.

"Even if eggs or pork meat with contents in the range of the highest measured values were consumed over a longer period of time during the past months, no health risk is to be expected," said BfR President, Professor Andreas Hensel, at a press conference on dioxin in foods during the Green Week farming and food fair in Berlin.

BfR says it based its first assessment on scenarios in which consumers would have consumed two eggs (of 60 grams) per day over a longer period. It was also assumed that these foods had the highest measured contents of 12 picograms per gram fat at each meal.

“According to this worst case scenario, the body burden of a young adult would hardly increase in the course of a month from 10.0 picograms per gram body fat to 10.336 picograms per gram body fat,” the BfR release says.

Body burden is defined as the amount of dioxins a human has collected at the daily intake of dioxins due to the background exposure up to a certain point in time of their life and has in their body long-term.

“Even in the theoretical case that somebody had consumed foods with the highest measured dioxin contents for a year, the body burden would only moderately increase,” the agency argues.

“At the end of the year it would have risen after the consumption of a total of 730 eggs with the highest measured dioxin content by 4 picograms to a total of 14 picograms per gram body fat.

“20 years ago young adults still had a body burden of 30 picograms dioxins per gram of body fat. Even with these high values compared to the current levels, no health impairments were proven.

“Consequently, BfR reaches the conclusion that even for people who consumed recently a larger amount of eggs and egg products or pork meat with a dioxin contamination above the respective maximum amount no health impairment is to be expected, not even in the long-term.

“Based on the current suspected samples of determined mean dioxin contents in foods, the tolerable daily intake (TDI: The amount of a substance which can be taken in per day during the entire life without a noticeable impact on the health of the consumer) is exhausted by the intake of dioxins alone (WHO-PCDD/F-TEQ) from eggs by approximately 4%. This assumes a mean consumption based on the data of the National Consumption Study II. For pork meat the TDI is exhausted by approximately 1% in this case. Consumers with a high egg and pork meat consumption would exhaust approximately 10% of the TDI with eggs and 2% with pork meat.”

For substances like dioxins it is not the daily intake dose but the amount in the body, i.e. the body burden, which is decisive for the health impact, the government body suggests.

“Dioxins accumulate in the body and every human takes traces of dioxins in through different foods every day because of the existing background exposure. Consequently, it has to be ensured that a body burden which would be critical in terms of health is not reached at a higher age either.

“The intake of dioxins through foods must, therefore, be minimised as far as possible. For this reason BfR believes that the exceeding of the statutory maximum amounts in foods and feeds is not acceptable.”

The BfR is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. It advises the German national and state governments on questions of food, chemical and product safety.

I hope I’m forgiven for giving the BfR arguments so much space, and for my skepticism: whoever believes what the BfR is saying here will be rewarded by going to heaven. I lived in Germany too long and saw too many food adulteration crises come and go to believe anything government officials say about food safety.

German farmers were/are bleeding and squealing, losing millions in lost sales and animal culls, exporters faced more and more bans and Berlin had to go into damage control mode to sandbag a vital industry. Enter the BfR, controlled by the conservative minister savagely attcked over her handling of the dioxin crisis, Ilse Aigner. And an all-clear at the world’s biggest farming and food fair? Too neat for me not to be suspicious.

Anyway, back from commentator to reporter:

For the organic farmers and food sellers the dioxin scare couldn’t have come at a better time than Green Week. Outside its gates thousands demonstrated against animal factories and dumping exports that destroy agriculture in the Third World.

The long-festering hostility between organic and conventional farmers was stirred again. The conventionals get supported, the organics have to struggle alone. The question so often raised to public attention and then dropped again a few weeks later is there again: how should Germany farm in future?

While the conventional farmers keep insisting that the latest scandal is an isolated case, the eco folk attack the very foundations of the whole system.

But even if farming immediately became more natural and kinder to animals, which would benefit everyone, the dioxin problem would remain. That’s because the changeover would take years and dioxin doesn’t spare organic farms, either.

But the organic and environment movement see industrial-scale animal production as the core reason for the recurring scandals with materials that simply shouldn’t be in food. They argue that anyone promoting masses of cheap meats for supermarkets and export also increases the risk of animal feed being adulterated with the cheapest and often harmful additives.

It can’t be denied that in the cut-throat competition on the grocery market the incentive will grow to buy the cheapest available raw materials. And since fats for industrial uses are a lot cheaper that those allowed in feed, the temptation is great to mix cheap and contaminated fat in with the clean to increase the output.

Whether that’s what really happened in this case is being invested by public prosecutors. All that’s certain so far is that contaminated fat moved through the feed trade. But just how that extremely toxic substance, the second most toxic one we know, got into the feed chain isn’t clear yet.

Nor has it been proved whether it was accidental or criminal. Such details may not interest those focused only on the big picture, but they are important nonetheless to weigh what rules have to be put in place to prevent more such scandals.

Ilse Aigner has presented plans for more checks and stricter registration duties, but it remains to be seen what’s left of all that when all the votes and hearings, including in the European Union, have run. 

Another all-clear has come from another government agency, the Federal Environment Office, BMU. It says blood checks for dioxin are useless just yet. A blood test could find dioxin, but the concentration of it could not be differentiated from background burdens.

A BMU expert points out that people are burdened their whole lives by minimal dioxin contaminations. It could even be found shortly after birth. Dioxins accumulate in us and increase with age.

Compared with the lifelong contamination, the agency says, a short consumption of contaminated meat or eggs is small. With these givens, there is no point to blood tests, it argues.

All of that clashes with a release from the North-Rhine Westphalian consumer protection ministry that health damage from the consumption of dioxin-contaminated foods can’t be ruled out.

Meanwhile Russia has lifted its ban on imports of German poultry and pork. Its agriculture inspectorate said this followed constructive talks with German authorities. Earlier the Russians had sharply criticised the information policy of German agencies.

And according to the German farmers federation, DBV, consumers have great trust in German agriculture despite the dioxin scare. A DBV official said consumers rate the variety of products, quality and regionality of German but also imported products “very highly”. The market was settling down again after the scandal, he said. He said 350 of originally 5,000 quarantined poultry, pig and beef farms are still banned from trading and farmers needed urgent help to get back into business.

The DBV demanded fast implementation of the food ministry’s 14-point plan made in response to the scandal. It notes that pork and egg prices, which plummeted, are rising again.

Farmers are demanding compensation for their losses. Those who caused the damage should pay for it, the DBV said.

Three inspectors of the European Union are discreetly investigating the dioxin case. This small group of vets has been in the two northern states most affected, Scheswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. Every year EU inspectors check selected countries for safety in their food chains. Nobody’s saying just what the three are doing, except that they’ve been to fat mixers, feed mills and farms.

Berlin sources said the visitors were trying to establish whether German authorities worked transparently and whether crisis management worked. The aim was to restore trust after many EU countries expressed concern abaout meat and eggs from Germany.

The EU has flagged tougher checks on feed producers. This was agreed by 27 agriculture ministers in Brussels. Future checks are to ensure strict separation between industrial and feed fats. Private laboraties will have to report any dioxin finds in foodstuffs to authorities.

The feed company Harles und Jentzsch which sold the contaminated product, can continue operating, but only with industrial fats. The firm has filed insolvency but the administrator says there’s enough liquidity to keep going. The company is suspected of systematically adulterating feed fats. A qualified specialised firm has been tasked to keep an eye on everything the suspected firm does.

It’s emerged that Harles und Jentzsch were selling the contaminated feed since March 2010 at the latest. The thousands of farmers damaged are likely to be left alone with their losses. Harles und Jentzsch have maximum insurance cover of 25 million euros, but that’s not even assured if criminal intent is proved.

It’s general manager, Siegfried Sievert, 58, is being investigated for breaches of feed laws, fraud and tax evasion. Sievert, who was a spy for the secret police in the former communist East Germany, became the only executive of Harles & Jentzsch in 2005.

A move by agriculture and consumer minister, Ilse Aigner, has incensed everyone angered by the dioxin scare. She has just appointed as her new state secretary, Peter Bleser, now a federal MP of the conservative CDU party.

What angers The Greens and environment activists is that Bleser hails from the very animal feed industry that’s at the centre of the scandal. He’s on the board of one of the country’s biggest feed producers.

During the crisis he kept stressing that the feed poisoning was not due to the system of German farming and mass production, but the criminal machinations of a few. Bleser also favours strengthening conventional big farms and industrial animal production.

In any event, a poll of 200 enterprises in the food, feed and farming industries has found three quarters of them fearing further scandals and not believing that the dioxin case was singular. Only higher food prices and tougher controls would deliver more security, the industry lobby group said. Almost 40% see a high risk of further contamination crises but 72% rate the safety of German foods highly.