Air Date: Week of June 11, 1999
Steve talks with journalist Chris White about Europe’s most serious food scare since 1996. Meat products and byproducts have been pulled off the shelves in Belgium, and countries all over the world are refusing Belgian exports after it was discovered that thousands of pounds of animal feed had been contaminated with the carcinogen dioxin. The crisis has already cost Belgium $500 million, and the Belgian government is being blamed for not responding quickly enough.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europe is in the midst of its worst food scare since fears of mad cow disease forced Britain to ban all beef exports in 1996. Today the crisis is in Belgium, where the government suspended sales of poultry, eggs, beef, pork, and byproducts. The move came after a television program revealed that tons of animal feed had been contaminated with one of the most deadly toxins known to science: dioxin. The scandal has already cost the Belgian economy a half a billion dollars, and the tab is still running. Countries all over the world are refusing Belgian food exports. Chris White, a journalist who's lived in Brussels for the past 15 years says you only need to go shopping to see the impact of the ban.
WHITE: When you walk into any supermarket or shop, the shelves in the past few days have been completely empty. And in terms of quantity, we're talking about an entire nation's food stocks.
CURWOOD: Now, has the food actually been tested? I mean, do people know that in fact dioxin is in the food that was being sold?
WHITE: Well, this all came to light when a Dutch test was done and they found dioxin residues 1,000 times above the World Health Organization's acceptable level. And that really sort of began the whole scandal. And since then they have been doing various tests, but it's not quite clear exactly what the residues are in each of these foods. I think to some extent it's been banned purely on the basis, unless they're sure, it's banned.
CURWOOD: Well, how did the dioxin get in the food?
WHITE: Well, at the moment, a father and son who ran an animal feed business are still in custody. They are under arrest, charged with fraud, and possibly much more serious charges to follow. They fed, either deliberately or accidentally, contaminated engine oil into the feed. The supposition here, and the accusation is, that they did it deliberately to bulk out the feed. If it were an accident, it would be rather different. If it were a criminal activity, then there is a possibility in everybody's minds that it might have been going on for some time.
CURWOOD: So, what are people eating there in Brussels right now? What happens if you go out to a restaurant?
WHITE: Well, I'm going out to a restaurant in a moment with a colleague who's come over to visit me, and they've got on offer pasta dishes, vegetables, and horse meat, which of course is not affected.
CURWOOD: What are the odds that any of this food could have gotten here to the United States?
WHITE: Well, I have to say it's reasonably slim, but Belgium is a major exporter of food products. So, it would be unlikely that the American market has escaped entirely. But it has to be said that people shouldn't worry too much, because I think that the amounts of residue would be extremely small. That is to say if it hasn't been going on for years, I suppose.
CURWOOD: So, Belgian chocolate's okay, even if it's made with milk.
WHITE: No. Belgian chocolates are one of the things that people should be very wary of, and that is probably one of the most damaging economic effects of this whole scandal. That the Belgian chocolate export market has been severely damaged.
CURWOOD: What's the government's response been to all this?
WHITE: Well, the government has been accused of being very slow and laggardly in getting the facts together on this whole scandal, and amazingly, one of the ministers of the Belgian government has admitted that one of the reasons for not being able to say how extensive the danger might be, is that 50% of the company concern's business was done in the black. That is to say, not declared to the tax man.
CURWOOD: Now, you've lived in Belgium for some 15-odd years. How does this scandal and event compare to other events that you've observed in Belgium, in terms of its impact on the society and the economy, and the mentality there?
WHITE: Well, I think I concur with most Belgians I've spoken to today, who say that they've had a succession of very serious scandals, and that this is the worst scandal they can recall. It shocked the Belgian nation to the roots. They are now aware that their government is very, very borderline in terms of correctness, and I think that they feel it's a corrupt country, and that something has got to be done about it.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.
WHITE: Well, thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Chris White edits the European Parliamentary Magazine in Brussels.
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