Belgium admits absence of any controls on animal feed content

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BELGIUM'S beleaguered Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, yesterday called a halt to campaigning for national elections on 13 June and announced an official parliamentary inquiry into Europe's worst food contamination crisis since Mad Cow Disease.

"The problem is too serious," Mr Dehaene said. "My concern is not with my image. It is to get to grips with this problem, contain it, have clean supplies, both for the home and foreign markets." But his government, now under attack even from parties within the centre-left coalition, admitted yesterday that there are no controls whatsoever on the raw materials which go into the manufacture of animal feed. "There are no controls at the entry point of the food chain," the Health Minister, Luc Van den Bossche, said. "Things can go wrong there permanently."

Almost a week into the crisis provoked by cancer-causing dioxins in chicken, the government has still not been able to come up with a definitive list of which farms may have used the animal feed contaminated by fattener, polluted with dioxin. The chemical is thought to have come from mechanical oil, which somehow became mixed up with 80,000 kilos of feed for poultry, pigs and cattle.

Hundreds of Belgium's butchers, bakers and grocery stores were closed down over the weekend or expected to close for the coming days: many of their products including such Belgian favourites as waffles and chocolate have been either banned or are now impossible to sell since the scandal.

The affair has almost wiped out the country's multi-billion-pound food industry. Egypt and Kuwait yesterday joined the ranks of countries refusing to accept imports of Belgian meat and poultry. New restrictions on the sale and use of poultry, eggs, fatty pork and beef and all byproducts were announced at the weekend.

Last Tuesday, the health and farm ministers resigned after it became clear they had known about the problem for a month without informing the public or even Dehaene. Dioxin is a carcinogenic byproduct of the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides.

The European Union's veterinary experts meet in Brussels today to assess the gravity of the food scare and decide whether any of the trade curbs imposed on Belgium can yet be relaxed.

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