Originally created 06/05/99

What's for dinner? In Belgium, not steak, eggs, or pastries



BRUSSELS, Belgium -- What's for dinner tonight? No local steaks for the main course. No chicken. Nothing with eggs in it. No Belgian waffles for dessert. Forget pastries and ice cream.

An entire nation wondered what to eat Friday after those foods and more were yanked from supermarket shelves or considered too suspect to eat because of cancer-causing dioxin feared to have spread through the Belgian food chain due to contaminated animal feed.

"No chicken, no pork, no eggs, no beef!" screamed a banner headline in the daily La Derniere Heure.

"And that jar of mayonnaise? Better not touch it," said Health Minister Luc Van den Bossche.

The government advised against eating beef and pork products after it already pulled poultry and eggs from the shelves -- leaving shoppers staring at many empty shelves instead of stocking up on weekend goodies.

"What are you having today?" Het Nieuwsblad newspapers headlined over an empty plate.

State police were on alert Friday to make sure no poultry, pigs or cattle were slaughtered or transported anywhere until at least Sunday night. Officers went from shop to shop checking that potentially contaminated products had been taken off the shelves.

Organic food stores were doing great business and foreign foods were popular to replace discredited local fare.

Belgian farmers were outraged.

"Our consternation is total," said Roger Saenen of the Farmers Union. "All this is so colossal, it is indigestible."

The scandal broke last week when a television station reported that fat laced with dioxin -- a carcinogenic byproduct of the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides -- was used to make poultry feed. Belgium's health and farm ministers resigned when it became clear they knew about the dioxin for a month before making it public.

Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene rushed back from a European Union summit and huddled with key ministers to deal with the issue. "This is extremely serious," he said.

The 15-nation EU, meanwhile, quickly took measures to contain the food crisis and was looking to add dairy products to the list of restrictions already imposed on produce from suspect farms.

Greece imposed an immediate ban on all imports of Belgian animal products. Britain said it would issue an emergency order to destroy Belgian pork, beef and related products suspected of dioxin contamination.

Spain ordered all Belgian animal products taken off the market. France said it was banning sales and transport from 66 cattle farms that used products containing animal fat provided by a French company that imported part of its supplies from Belgium.

Countries outside the EU were also taking action. The United States held up all imports of chickens, pork and any byproducts from the EU -- a response the EU called "disproportionate."

Russia banned the import of Belgian pork and pig fodder. Health authorities confiscated 20 tons of ground turkey in central Russia because of fears of dioxin contamination. Romania imposed a ban on all imports of Belgian livestock and animal products.

Van den Bossche said 175,000 pounds of contaminated animal feed had been distributed to poultry, beef and pig farms early this year. Initial tests showed dioxin levels in some chickens were 1,000 times the accepted limit.

The scandal was limited to poultry until Thursday, when it became evident that pork and beef could also be contaminated. An estimated 140 cattle farms, 500 pig farms and 416 poultry farms have been linked to the contaminated fat.

Two officials of the company who produced the animal feed fat have been arrested on fraud charges.

The food crisis was already taking a toll on jobs. The Ter Beke meat company had to temporarily lay off 1,000 of its 1,200 workers.

It is Europe's worst food scandal since the mad cow disease in 1996, when the EU Commission imposed a worldwide export ban on British beef.