Europe is gripped by its worst food crisis since 1996. Then, scientists discovered that beef from Britain may have been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.” Now, new fears have been triggered by the discovery in Belgium that fat contaminated with dioxin — a lethal carcinogen — was mixed with 80,000 kg of feed for poultry, pigs and cattle. Countries around the world have banned the import of Belgian products; some have even banned all EU products. Belgian and EU officials are engaged in damage-control efforts, but that is not enough. As other, similar, episodes have demonstrated, this is a problem of modern agriculture. A more systemic evaluation of policy and practices is required.

The damage that has been done by the Belgian scare is hard to assess. The import ban will cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars; the human cost will not be known for years. The damage to the government’s credibility is going to be even harder to assess. The Belgian government has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for why it waited until May to take action, when the problem and the offending company were first identified in March.

While it is easy to fault the Belgian authorities, governments around the world must act to protect the food chain. Japan had its own scare earlier this year, following reports that dioxin had contaminated green vegetables and tea in Tokorozawa. Subsequent investigation proved that the initial fears were overblown, but the public has been alerted to the danger and has demanded a response.

The problem is that the food chain is lengthening. This crisis was sparked when mechanical oil was mixed with fat, which was then sent to 10 animal-feed manufacturers. They sent their product to farms throughout Europe. In Japan, the contamination resulted from wastes from incinerators. BSE was spread when infected animals were used for animal feed. Clearly, new environmental standards are needed, but they will not suffice. Heightened vigilance is also required, which will, in turn, necessitate greater cooperation between scientists and policymakers.

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