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`Chickengate' farmers block food imports

BELGIAN FARMERS, whose livelihoods have been blighted by the country's dioxin poisoning scare, blockaded the French and Dutch borders in desperation yesterday to stop foreign food getting in.

Two weeks after the news that cancer-causing dioxin had entered the food chain through contaminated animal feed, the crisis has grown into an economic and political catastrophe, the effects of which may be felt for years.

The authorities have tried in vain to calm the public and persuade shoppers that Belgian food is safe. Celia Dehaene, wife of the Prime Minister, was pictured yesterday on the front page of the tabloid La Derniere Heure, seasoning a chicken on a grill. She told readers: "We are continuing to eat everything."

But while the authorities have sought to resume the slaughter of chickens, a growing number of food producers seem to be closing, at least temporarily. Nestle has halted production in two Belgian factories, and a leading chain of butchers has also shut temporarily.

Exporters have been badly hit. The country's association of chocolate- makers said: "Anything which is Belgian is being refused everywhere."

Belgian farmers put the losses from the dioxin scare at nearly pounds 238m. The dairy industry has secured a court injunction, forcing the government to pay the sector pounds 16m a day to compensate for lost trade caused by the lack of a certified list of dioxin-free firms. The overall cost to the Belgian economy - and to that of Europe, which is suffering consequent export losses - isconsiderably more than this.

Naturally, this has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the government, which faces a general election on Sunday. The European Commission has said it will take action against Belgium, and the agriculture ministers of Britain, France and Germany have publicly chastised the Belgians over their handling of the crisis.

Most of the criticism is deserved. Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Prime Minister, points out it was not his government that let dioxin contaminate ingredients supplied to animal-feed producers. But, although the government was alerted to a problem in March, and identified it in April, another month passed before the consumer was told.

Although the contamination was in January, officials have yet to find its precise cause or extent. It is thought to have come from an oil tank at a plant near Ghent, but the source has yet to be determined.

Belgium's co-operation with the European Commission has been less than total. Its initial list of "safe" poultry farms had to be amended this week when almost double the stated number - in total more than 1,400 - were found to be at risk. The government has yet to put in place its certification scheme to guarantee the origin of food from unaffected farms, but has said it will be based on a declaration by farmers. That may not be enough to restore confidence among consumers.

And, despite an injunction from the EU to remove all dairy products from the market until they can be certified safe, the government has applied the measure only to butter.