German officials are hoping to avert a full European Union ban on German organic foodstuffs that may be contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical after Belgium passed emergency laws to do just that.
German regional agriculture officials held an emergency meeting in Berlin to review the scare over chicken feed tainted with the potentially carcinogenic herbicide, nitrofen, which is banned throughout the European Union.
After the meeting, Deputy Farm Minister Alexander Mueller said new information suggested that contrary to earlier fears, there appeared to be only one source of tainted grain and said Germany had the situation under control.
"I assume that this means that the grounds for the Commission to act fall away," he told a news conference, adding that Germany had informed officials in Brussels about the latest state of play in the affair.
Mueller said the European Commission, the bloc's executive wing, had said it was considering a ban on affected products due to concerns about a possible second source of nitrofen. Mueller said there was now no reason to think there was a second source.
Hundreds of thousands of chickens on German organic farms are being slaughtered after it was confirmed they ate feed that was contaminated with nitrofen, apparently in an East German grain store that once housed pesticides.
Contaminated meat and eggs have probably already been eaten by consumers, German officials have said.
A Commission spokeswoman in Brussels said that following information from Berlin last week that was "unclear and at times contradictory", the European Union executive would examine the nitrofen issue today.
"No decision has been taken yet. We are expecting more information from Germany and we will look at this today," Beate Gminder, a spokeswoman for EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne, told Reuters.
A decision to ban the export of affected products could be taken at any time by Byrne under emergency powers. Although Gminder said in such cases it was better to act "sooner rather than later", this would not necessarily happen today.
Belgian Health Minister Magda Aelvoet said Berlin had not yet provided enough information about the scare. In the meantime, she said she had no option but to demand assurances that imports of foodstuffs were free of the chemical.
"The only thing I can do is to make sure the large range of German foodstuffs cannot get into the country unless they are accompanied by proof they are free of nitrofens," she told Belgian television yesterday.
The Belgian legislation, published on the government website, said that from today, German cereals for food and animal feed, as well as food products of animal origin, would have to carry an official guarantee they had been tested and were nitrofen free. Belgium said last week it would test German imports itself but has now shifted the burden onto the Germans.
Belgium is particularly sensitive to food scares following a dioxin crisis in 1999, when the cancer-causing chemical found its way from animal feed into the food chain. Exports were banned and products were recalled from shops around the world.
Aelvoet said other governments were acting over nitrofen.
"We are not alone, the Netherlands, Denmark and France are, in their own way, taking measures and now it seems the European Commission itself is considering measures."
Until the news of the contamination broke late last month, organic farming had been promoted by the German government - in which ecologist Greens are the junior partners - and favoured by consumers, worried by past food scares over mad cow and foot and mouth diseases centered on more industrialised farming.
Officials have tracked the source of contaminated chicken feed to a grain store in Malchin, which in the days of communist East Germany was used to hold pesticides and weedkiller, residues of which had tainted wheat stored there.
Some 93 organic farms producing chickens, eggs and other poultry have been closed. German officials said nitrofen is only a serious danger to health when consumed over long periods.