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Green Campaign's Edges Turn Brown

Europe: A year after it began, Germany's effort to improve food safety has lost its urgency and accomplished little, consumer advocates say.


BERLIN — Black ice still encrusts the sidewalks, and it's dark by 4 p.m., but thoughts have turned to all things green this week as Germany's guardians of consumer protection assess the costs and benefits of a yearlong campaign against "mad cow" disease and other food crises.

Even before foot-and-mouth disease added a second food scare across Europe, mad cow fears had so engrossed Germans in early 2001 that the government created a new "super-ministry" empowered to reform agriculture and elevate food safety to a national security issue.

But a year after Renate Kuenast, a lawyer and firebrand Greens politician, was given the job of turning around a food industry long oriented toward the concerns of producers, consumer advocates complain that too little has been accomplished and that the wandering eye of officialdom is now focused elsewhere.

No one is openly blaming the Sept. 11 terror attacks for diverting resources or attention from the food safety priorities identified a year ago. But Friday's opening of the annual International Green Week exhibition has provoked the first serious attention in four months on the issues that had burned in the headlines last January.

'Piecemeal' Reforms

Last year, the Green Week gathering served as a tribunal for condemning mass-production practices and urging investment in ecology-friendly farming. By contrast, this year's run of the 10-day forum is providing only a quiet yardstick by which to measure the half-steps and unfulfilled good intentions of the past year.

As head of the new Ministry for Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture, Kuenast has succeeded in launching a system to bestow ecological seals of approval on food products. Those labels will begin showing up in supermarkets in spring.

She has also formulated new regulations on the care of egg-laying hens and has urged European Union officials in Brussels to rethink a subsidy system that rewards quantity over quality, hindering moves to encourage more politically and environmentally correct farming.

"But all these reforms have been piecemeal from the consumer's viewpoint," Franz-Georg Rips, head of the federal Assn. of Consumer Affairs Bureaus, said at a news conference Wednesday to kick off Green Week, which promoters contend is the world's biggest food, agriculture and gardening convention.

"We need a ministry that holds consumer protection to be as important as environmental protection and is willing to rap other agencies on the knuckles when they disregard consumer interests," Rips said.

No new cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the scientific term for mad cow disease, have been discovered for months since testing of older cows has become mandatory and feed containing meat-and-bone meal--blamed for transmitting the disease--has been outlawed throughout the 15-nation EU.

But most of Kuenast's other projects remain on the drawing board. An appeal from the consumer affairs bureaus for more detailed content labeling on food products has been stifled by industry protests, as has a push for expanding eco-farming to account for 20% of food production.

In addition, the share of farms prohibiting destructive chemicals and fertilizers remains around the 2% that existed at the start of the initiative. And nothing has yet changed in the EU subsidy system that drives mass production.

Industry Regains Clout

Meanwhile, the German Farmers Assn. and the Federal Union of German Food Industries, which fought vehemently against the efforts to expand eco-farming, have recently recovered most of the clout they lost when consumers were more focused on food safety.

In fact, the farmers association chief, Gerd Sonnleitner, used the occasion of the Green Week kickoff to lash out at Kuenast and her consumer protection lieutenants as too concerned with ecology and indifferent toward the threat posed by her reform proposals to as many as 50,000 agriculture jobs.

"The insecurity created is so huge that farmers are more inclined to take their money out of agriculture altogether than invest in new equipment and buildings," Sonnleitner complained, estimating an average cost of 10,000 euros, or nearly $9,000, for each farmer trying to meet new environmental protection standards.

Germans also learned this week that unemployment has reached a three-year high, providing a sensitive backdrop for the agro-industrial lobbyists warning consumers that they face higher prices and more joblessness as they go green.

Food industry spokesman Peter Traumann was likewise flexing newly restored muscle. Like many German industry leaders, he chastised supermarket and retail chains that embraced the Jan. 1 introduction of the euro common currency by slashing prices.

German food producers enjoyed a 5.5% increase in revenue last year, but Traumann insisted that the boost in sales has meant little profit for the industry because of growing output costs.

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