Dioxins in feed and food again – real or perceived risk?

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Shortly before Christmas 2010, the authorities and the public in Germany were alarmed by the news that dioxins had once again entered the feed chain. Dioxins, often denoted as the “most dangerous man-made compounds” comprise two classes of environmental pollutants and include 210 different compounds that have no technical or other use but are formed as unwanted by-products in a number of thermal and industrial processes. In this case the source could be traced back to contaminated fatty acids originating from the production of biodiesel from used cooking fats. How the fatty acids were contaminated is still unclear. Most likely, waste containing chlorophenols was dumped into used cooking oils. Although banned for use in feed since the Belgian dioxin case in 1999, a manufacturer of feed fat has purchased the fatty acids which were clearly labeled for technical applications only and illegally mixed them into presumably more than 2200 tons of feed fat. The difference of around 500 Euro per tonne between fatty acids for technical purposes and fatty acids for feed produced from fresh plant oils means a “gain” of 10 000 Euro per 20 tonnes truck, and provided incentive enough for a presumable criminal action. Assuming that the proportion of the contaminated fat mixed into the feed was 1–3%, tens of thousands tonnes of compound feed might have been contaminated. As a consequence, more than 5000 farms were temporarily blocked and only unblocked after an analytical result had demonstrated the absence of elevated dioxin levels in the respective feed or food product from the farm.

What are the lessons learned from this incident? Several aspects can be highlighted. First of all, even the best and most sophisticated monitoring scheme cannot completely prevent incidents like this one. Vulnerable places are especially fat smelters and collecting points for used cooking fats with their hundreds of incoming barrels from food industry and catering companies. An illegal disposal of hazardous waste into these barrels is relatively easy and almost impossible to detect. In this respect one has to worry that thousands of tonnes of transformer oils and hydraulic fluids containing technical mixtures of PCBs are still around although they should have been disposed of properly already until the end of 2010. The recent incident follows a number of similar cases where, due to a criminal or grossly negligent action of individuals, a massive feed contamination occurred, causing seizure and destruction of tens of thousands tonnes of feed and food and slaughter of thousands of food producing animals. The financial loss for the concerned farmers and the economic damage are enormous and add up to millions of Euro. The same holds true for the image loss when consumers become unsettled and third countries stop their imports of agricultural products from all around Europe and mostly not differentiating between affected and non-affected countries. Adulteration of feed and food is no trivial offence but a severe crime and the offenders should be punished with the full rigor of the law. The legal instruments are generally available and should be applied accordingly.

Another aspect in incidents where dioxins are involved concerns the communication. Dioxins cannot be detected by taste or smell and concentrations such as pikogram per gram or parts per trillion are exceedingly difficult to imagine for the general public. The consumers largely rely on the often inaccurate and overstated information from the media, and this makes it more difficult for risk assessment bodies and health authorities to communicate a balanced characterization of the inherent risk to the public. Often, the consumer is lost between belittlement and demonization and seeks the way out in purchasing organic food, such as eggs from free ranging chicken. However, the fact that dioxins are airborne contaminants, and as such do not stop in front of organic food, is often ignored. Extensive monitoring programmes in the past years have indicated that the dioxin levels in eggs from free ranging chicken often exceed the respective levels in eggs from caged chicken 1. Moreover, the last major dioxin incident in Germany happened only 1 year ago and affected organic eggs contaminated by feed containing organic maize from Ukraine. This clearly indicates that better consumer information is urgently needed.

Regarding the dioxin concentrations in the affected food samples, the highest exceedance of maximum levels was found for chicken eggs with a factor of 4. Based on the assessment of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), no health risk is to be expected even if eggs or pork meat containing dioxins in the range of the highest measured were consumed over a longer period of time during the past months [http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/consumption_of_eggs_and_meat_poses_no_risk_to_human_health_as_indicated_by_the_latest_dioxin_concentrations_measured.pdf]. Of course this should not be misunderstood that the current dioxin case was not a problem and that the administrative measure of the competent authorities were overreactions. In contrast, due to numerous successful measures dioxin emissions were considerably reduced in the past two decades resulting in diminished levels in the environment and decreased human exposure through dietary intake. These beneficial effects must not be foiled by criminal actions, especially when taking into account that a substantial part of the European population is still exposed to concentrations in the range of or even above the tolerable intake of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds.

Finally, following incidents like this one, politicians discuss the consequences. The proposed courses of action usually range from higher control frequencies to a more severe punishment of the offenders. However, as soon as the incident is out of the public focus and other news dominate the headlines, the often endless discussions on a national and European level are a long haul and well-intentioned measures find no majority because of conflicting interests between different stakeholders. So, it is to hope that this time most of the measures aiming at the improvement of feed safety proposed and adopted by the German Federal Minister of Consumer Protection and her colleagues from the German states will soon come into force as the experience of the last years has shown: After the dioxin incident is before the dioxin incident.

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