The US move was described as "disproportionate" by a European spokesman. The US imports about $245m worth of pork products, mainly pate, and a "negligible" amount of chicken from the EU annually.
The reaction is clearly at odds with the measures the US took when its own chicken feed was contaminated in 1997. It advised that removing skin and fat would render dioxin-contaminated chicken safe for sale.
The rapid US ban is seen as a salvo in the trade war over Europe's continuing refusal to import hormone-treated beef from the US. The US has already threatened to impose tariffs on EU meat items in retaliation; the Belgian row offers an ideal reprisal. It is also politically opportune, because there is a pork glut in the US and farmers are pushing for subsidies.
In Britain, thousands of items were removed from supermarket shelves. But supermarket chiefs emphasised this was a "precautionary" measure.
A Tesco spokesman said: "Our understanding is that dioxins at the levels in these items are not a threat to public health. But we have been advised by the Government to withhold them from sale."
The scandal follows the discovery that feed intended for chickens and sent to more than 1,000 farms in Belgium, France and Holland was contaminated with dioxins, probably by adulteration with mineral oils.
The Belgian government has now banned the sale of chicken, egg, pork and beef products while it investigates the extent of the contamination. A father and son, Lucien and Jan Verkest, were arrested on Thursday on a farm near Ghent, and questioned about their part in the production of contaminated feed.
Hungary, Holland and Russia are among the countries which banned pork and chicken from Belgium. The economic impact on the small country will clearly run into millions of pounds. Yesterday its citizens faced empty shelves stripped of everything from steak to mayonnaise, and Belgian waffles to chocolate mousse.
But the extent of the worldwide reaction has plainly been disproportionate to the risk posed. The Independent has found that in July 1997 the US Department of Agriculture (DoA) identified a similar dioxin contamination affecting American chickens, when a feed manufacturer used adulterated oils. About 1 per cent of the entire country's chicken feed supply was affected.
Though the DoA suspended exports of chicken, the problem was not widely publicised. According to advisory documents, "when fat and skin are removed from chickens, most of the dioxin is removed as well", meaning that levels of the chemicals remaining would be "below the level of concern".
Only when the contamination was discovered the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set a "safe daily level" for dioxin intake through food, which was then shown by another government arm, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to be impractical.
Samples of pure ground beef bought in New York were shown to have levels of dioxins 50 per cent higher than FDA levels - and the EPA estimated that the average American ate between 300 and 600 times the "safe" level each day.
Nor have dioxins been proven to cause cancer, or any other deadly illness, in humans. Repeated long-term studies do not bear out the toxicity shown in laboratory animals.
Withdrawn From Sale
WHO'S withdrawing what:
All items are being withdrawn as a "precautionary measure": the Government says "consumption of contaminated food would not be expected to produce harmful effects... those usually occur in humans after prolonged exposure to high levels of dioxins."
-15 Belgian pates, incl Brussels pate and Ardennes pate
-sliced liver sausage
-Tesco mayonnaise (standard, reduced calorie, value, premium roast onion, premium extra virgin olive oil, premium smoked garlic, premium tarragon & white wine);
-egg-coated croissants from in-store bakery.
-ice creams using ingredients from Belgium
-Chicken liver pate
-pre-packed Sainsbury's duck and orange pate
-Brussels and Ardennes pate
-own-brand wafer thin honey roast ham
-Continental honey ham
-pre-cooked sliced chicken products (chargrilled, herb & garlic, honey roast)
-own brand Ardennes, Brussels and specialty pates
-pasta and ham salad
-chili and pepperoni salad
-speciality rice chinese lemon chicken
-bacon & lentil soup
-36 brands of Belgian pate
-own-brand thick-sliced chicken roll
-La Rochelle ham & pork loaf
-Belgian-made Brussels and Ardennes pates
-American-style spare ribs (contain mayonnaise)
-four lines of cooked turkey
-one line of cooked chicken
-Brussels and Ardenne pate
-McVities Jaffa Cake Bars, Penguin Cake Bars and Munch Bar Variety.Reuse content