"If you know the food is contaminated, throw it away. But if you have eaten a Belgian chocolate in the last few months, I wouldn't worry."

SIRC – Media Watch 01-07-99

Warning: Belgian poultry could give you spots

Along with the continuing GM issue, the Belgium food scare has dominated much of this month's media. Concerns began back in January when chicken farmers noticed a decline in the number of eggs that were hatching. The chicks from those that did hatch were experiencing a variety of neural disorders. Tests carried out on animal feed by the Dutch State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products identified 1500 times the legal limit of dioxins in an 80-tonne batch of fat produced by the Verkest Company, which was subsequently passed on to 12 feed manufacturers. Widespread panic ensued. The EU imposed a ban on Belgian chicken and eggs. The US, Russia and parts of Asia not only concurred with this action but also expanded the measures to encompass meat products from Belgium and some of its European neighbours.

While this response was undoubtedly fuelled by a deep-rooted suspicion of Europe's food safety record, retaliation for previously implemented trade embargoes may also have played a significant role. Public outrage in Belgium resulted in the resignations of the Agriculture Minister, Karel Pinxten, and the Health Minister Marcel Colla when it transpired that three months had elapsed between the discovery of the source of the contamination and the removal of poultry products from sale. On Sunday June 13 the Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Deheane also stepped down following the defeat of his coalition in the country's general election. He was in no doubt as to why this had occurred: "It's a stunning blow and a deep disappointment. It doesn't surprise me that a food crisis had such an impact."

The international bans on Belgian food products are estimated to have cost $500 million. Once again we witness the substantial price of food scares both politically and financially, but what is the true risk of dioxin contamination? Dioxin is a term used to define 210 different compounds of which only 17 are toxic. John Emsley, the science writer at Cambridge University, urges a degree of balance: "Though you would never want dioxins deliberately added to the food supply, it is important to recognise that no human has ever died directly from dioxin exposure. The only proven symptom is a form of acne, which clears up. Repeated studies have not shown a link with cancer or birth defects. If you know the food is contaminated, throw it away. But if you have eaten a Belgian chocolate in the last few months, I wouldn't worry."