`Chickengate' leaves nation of gourmands hungry

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THE SHELVES of the cooked meat section were bare yesterday in the Bascule branch of Delhaize supermarket in Brussels. The poultry aisle was being shunned, but there was a small scrum around the pizzas. "You have to eat something," said one elderly lady, putting a ham pizza into her basket. Minutes later she returned and replaced it with one of the four cheeses variety.

This scene in the capital was played out all over Belgium as the country's scare over cancer-causing dioxins in food threatens to spread out of control. On Monday, the list of suspect products printed in the local press included 45 categories, ranging from chicken, eggs and sausages to tiramisu, and including many Belgian specialities such as mayonnaise, waffles and pate de foie. But it expands daily. The banner headline in yesterday's La Libre Belgique summed up the mood of near-panic: "No eggs, no chicken, no meat, no milk, no butter, no cheese..." Suddenly rabbit is all the rage in Brussels.

Even in the canteen at Nato's Brussels headquarters the sandwich selection has dwindled to one option: cheese and salad. Soon it will probably be just salad - without mayonnaise, of course.

What appears to have been a one-off problem from a firm that supplied fat to animal feed makers has developed into an economic, political and social crisis known as Chickengate.

There could scarcely be a more cruel fate to visit upon a small nation so proud of its cuisine. The land of the gourmand and many Michelin-starred restaurants is racked with self- doubt, a country where the opinion polls report that more than 60 per cent of the population is fearful for its health.

Last weekend hordes of Belgians crossed into France and Germany to shop. But this precaution may not prove effective. One consignment of chicken sold in France and marketed as French was Belgian.

The crisis started in January when a Belgian chicken producer noticed problems, which an insurance company investigation identified as stemming from fat processed into animal feed.

Test results in April indicated that animal fats produced by Verkest, which are used in making animal feed, had been contaminated with dioxin. The father and son who run the company, based near Ghent, remain in jail awaiting trial for supplying contaminated fats to manufacturers in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. At least 1,400 Belgian farms were affected.

No category of food has been banned, but retailers now have to provide certificates which say either that their produce has been tested or that it came from none of the farms affected. Foreign imports are at a premium.

Politically the crisis could not have come at a worse time, with Belgium due to hold its general election on Sunday. Two ministers have resigned, being held responsible for the government's failure to notify the public or the European Commission of the problem for several weeks.

There have been some beneficiaries. "Rabbit and lamb sales have more than doubled - and fish sales have trebled," according to Jean-Pierre Roelands, commercial director of the supermarket chain Colruyt.

But the cost of the scare to producers of meat and dairy products is expected to run to at least pounds 300m.