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Germany's dioxin scare -- and what it says about the food chain

January 08, 2011|By Mary Forgione, Tribune Health
  • German authorities have stopped more than 4,700 farms from selling meat and eggs as a precautionary measure amid growing concerns about animal feed contaminated with dioxins.
German authorities have stopped more than 4,700 farms from selling meat… (David Hecker / Associated…)

If you haven't read about the dioxin scare in Germany, you will. Sales of poultry, pork and eggs were halted Friday for fear they contained dangerous levels of the cancer-causing chemicals -- news that has reverberated around the world. It has also highlighted how connected our food supply is to other aspects of our society (more on that later).

Countries such as South Korea and Slovakia have stopped selling food imported from Germany that may contain animal products. Dioxins were detected at alarming levels during random tests of chickens. Investigators suspect tainted feed.

Dioxins are environmental pollutants derived from combinations of other chemicals and may pose a serious health risk. Here's what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says:

"One of the main concerns over health effects from dioxins is the risk of cancer in adults. Several studies suggest that workers exposed to high levels of dioxins at their workplace over many years have an increased risk of cancer."

And the World Health Organization offers this warning: "Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer."

The British Food Standards Agency offers this much-easier-to-understand (if short on details) fact sheet. It says: "Dioxins and PCBs have no immediate effect on health, even at the highest levels found in foods. The potential risks to health come from long-term exposure to high levels. They have been shown to cause a wide range of effects, including cancer and damage to the immune and reproductive systems in certain animals, although it appears that people may be less sensitive."

In the meantime, those countries affected should note that dioxin is common throughout the food chain and that those animals higher up the chain can have concentrated levels of the chemicals, especially in their fat. The FDA offers information about how to reduce exposure in the foods we eat but naturally adds, "The U.S. food supply is among the safest and most nutritious in the world."

The British fact sheet says: "It is generally agreed that the best method of preventing dioxins and PCBs from entering the food chain is to control releases of these chemicals to the environment."

Ah ... now perhaps we're getting to the heart of the matter.

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