The German “dioxin incident”

09 February 2011

Jarste Akkermann

Since December 2010 there have been several media reports on dioxin in animal feed in Germany. Dioxin is a toxic, organic substance which is fat soluble. It can bind itself to the hormone receptors of human cells so that the cell function and the genetic mechanism is altered then causing a severe form of chronic acne and cancer. When animals have been fed with dioxin contaminated feed the dioxin can pass over to consumer products like eggs or meat. Depending on the level of dioxin contamination there can be a high risk for consumer health. 

Dioxin belongs to the group of toxic substances which are monitored in the framework of several coordinated control programs in Germany.

During monitoring controls in December 2010 dioxin was discovered in certain animal feed fats. The authorities started official tracing back and revealed the source as contaminated fat which was originally destined for technical purposes only but was illegally mixed with feed fat in a feed fat producing company in Germany. At first authorities assumed that this was the only responsible source. But now the authorities suspect that also a Dutch distributor could also be responsible. The inquiries and investigations, however, are still pending. Approximately 20 animal feed manufacturers are affected as they have all purchased raw materials from the same source of contaminated fats. By way of precaution – pending the outcome of further dioxin analyses – all feed fat produced at this feed fat company from 11 November 2010 onwards was considered as being possibly contaminated.

There are about 4800 agricultural holdings possibly affected in Germany. Consequently all these holdings were immediately blocked as a wide-scale precautionary measure. Contaminated food products were withdrawn from the market.

According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (“Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung”) the so far identified dioxin contents of several samples exceed the maximum content levels of the European Union but constitute no acute health risk for the consumers. However, even though there are no acute health risks, products exceeding the permitted maximum levels of dioxin are not marketable.

The legal background is as follows: The Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 of 19 December 2006 provides for setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs. There are maximum levels for dioxin and dioxin-like toxins (PCB) in meat, meat products, poultry and pig fat, chicken eggs and egg products. Furthermore, the Council Directive 2006/88/EC of 24 October 2006 sets out trigger levels for dioxin and dioxin-like toxins (PCB).

The Commission Directive 2002/32/EC on undesirable substances in animal feed provides for maximum levels in animal feed which has been implemented in Germany by the German Feed Regulation. Currently the European Commission is leading discussions on changing such maximum levels in animal feed based on data established by the World Health Organisation. It is interesting to note that some maximum contents are not being reduced but increased by the draft although in the light of the current “dioxin incident” one would expect the opposite. For example Point 1 of Section V Dioxins and PCBs of Annex 1 of Commission Directive 2002/32/EC allows hitherto for a maximum content of 0.75 ng WHO-PCDD/F-TEQ/kg in feed materials of mineral origin. The draft now suggests a higher content of up to 1.0 ng WHO-PCDD/F-TEQ/kg.

Agricultural holdings are still under restriction: they are not allowed to place their animals and animal products on the market or to export them. Although the discovered dioxin constitutes no risk for human health it has nevertheless caused severe damages to the industry. Affected agricultural holdings and animal feed companies have already announced they will claim damages for their losses which will be immense.

The “dioxin incident” has also led to great irritation and uncertainty among consumers.  That is why the Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection has announced that further measures will be taken based on a draft revising the German Consumer Information Act. Authorities shall be obliged in future to publish all names of “animal feed adulterers” to the public.  The Federal Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection also intends to exchange information with the Ministers of Agriculture in Ireland and Belgium as there have been similar dioxin cases in both Member States.

What can be extrapolated from the “dioxin incident” is the importance of complying with traceability provisions. The production chain should be as traceable as possible so that in the event of problems steps can be easily taken in risk management by the responsible companies. Especially in the food market, reactions to contaminations or other reasons for negative publicity are often intense. Bad publicity can cause severe damage to a company’s image and is difficult to erase in the memory of consumers. In such cases it pays out if the responsible company can show it is being pro-active and having good traceability. This is often regarded as a sign of product quality.