Germany’s dioxin scandal has shed new light on farmers’ factory-style practices and German consumers’ bad table manners, over-consumption and stingy shopping. Written with Mark Worth.
Britain had its mad cows. Now Germany has its own livestock scandal: dioxin-contaminated chickens and pigs. After years of avoiding British beef, Germans, who are steady meat consumers (with a special affinity for pork) will have to watch the Fleisch they put on their plate.
Yet, the outbreak of mad cow disease, or BSE, a decade ago had a lot of consequences, not all bad: it resulted in a European Union ban on the practise of using mashed up animals as ingredients in livestock feed. Now, industrial animal feed consists of a mush made up of 85 percent cereal crops, a few mineral supplements, plus 15 percent ‘other stuff’, fats that bind the feed together and ease the process of manufacturing and feeding. Great, so meat is healthy and safe now, right?
Well, possibly, if that ‘other stuff’ didn’t include fatty waste products from other industries that just ‘accidentally’ slip in. Which is what happened in this scandal: a dioxin-heavy by-product of bio-diesel found its way into pig and chicken food.
Carcinogens from the “fat tank”
BSE brought Britain’s agricultural exports to a grinding halt. Now Germany’s are under threat, because of fat supplier Harles & Jentzsch in Schleswig-Holstein. The government estimates that the company delivered some 3,000 tonnes of dioxin-saturated fat to 25 German animal-feed makers in November and December last year.
Culls were ordered on several farms, 4,700 of which were shut down while tests took place. An estimated 100,000 tainted eggs had already been sold when the scandal broke. Dioxin is a known carcinogen, though experts disagree on what level of toxicity constitutes a risk to humans. In the recent scandal, for example, it’s not clear whether the levels were dangerous to consumers.
This was almost certainly not an accident. “The idea that someone just turned on the wrong tap seems extremely unlikely to us,” said a spokesman for the agriculture ministry of Lower Saxony, where the dioxin-rich feed was first discovered.
Greenpeace’s chemistry expert Manfred Santen has a few ideas of how it could have happened. “There are different possibilities. On the one hand, there is a possibility that someone deliberately mixed it in,” he says. “This fat came from a bio-diesel plant that is supplied with old fat from food, often from fast food restaurants. Behind these restaurants they have a fat tank, and it can easily happen that someone puts something else in that tank. Someone might have tried to dump some old technical oil in there. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Santen’s other theory is that the dioxin came from plant oil. “Plant oil is also used in fast food restaurants,” he explains. “This oil could be soy or palm oil from Brazil or Asia, where they use chlorine-rich pesticides. And we know that chlorine can form dioxins in certain circumstances.” Santen’s conclusion: “The company is criminal, whichever way.”
Some essential points have not been made clear in the media reporting of this scandal. According to Harles & Jentzsch itself, there was already dioxin in the feed – the company just went over the EU’s legal limit. The company’s own product-specification sheets show that the feed also contains such delights as industrial carcinogens called PCBs, fuel-burning by-products called PAHs and fat derived from genetically modified soy, which does not have to be listed on consumer food labels because of a loophole in EU law.
Secondly, Harles & Jentzsch is actually more of a chemical company than a feed or food company. Nowadays, a lot of food ingredients are produced by conglomerates that do a lot of other things, so their attention to food safety is divided. Harles & Jentzsch essentially buys raw materials, chops them up and then figures out which industry they can sell the sub-ingredients to – one of those industries happens to be livestock feed.
It also sells de-inking soaps and acids to the paper industry, and a variety of animal-based fats and acids to chemical companies. This is a classic example of how the industrialised food-production system works – a food safety problem is caused by a company that’s not even a food company.
The only practical way to ensure that food is kept clean in such situations is constant inspection. At the moment, this is left in the hands of the food producers themselves, with the authorities only carrying out occasional random checks.
“The problem is that when you leave the inspections to the producers, you get analyses that are not published, but rather hidden,” says Santen. “The police think that this company has simply been diluting the fat every time they saw there was too much dioxin in it. So the problem is the inspections. We need more of them and we need them to be independent.”
Thanks to the EU’s traceability systems, introduced after the mad cow outbreak, this particular scandal was kept fairly contained, and the risk to public health – though present – was minimised.
But the scandal did partially lift the veil on an industry that has grown more secretive as its methods have become more questionable. In affluent Bavaria – where the family home and the cow barn are one unified structure – you can still walk down a village street, shake a dairy farmer’s hand and pat a milk cow on the head. But anyone trying to gain entrance to a large-scale pig or chicken farm in Germany will almost certainly be turned away.
Scattered throughout Brandenburg, Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, these factory-style operations often resemble prisons, with high fences, guard posts and warning signs.
Only by hopping a fence at night can you get a glimpse of the actual conditions. At ‘finishing plants’, the last stop before slaughter, pigs live in long, narrow concrete buildings where they are methodically fattened. Caged individually in spaces too small to turn around in – and with their heads ever-positioned over the feed trough – pigs are kept awake by bright lights and loud rock ‘n’ roll, giving them little choice but to eat.
Butcher by numbers
More such facilities are expected soon, particularly in the high-unemployment former East. Dutch multinationals, which face stricter restrictions at home, are planning pig farms housing up to 85,000 animals in the job-hungry eastern German states. And factory-style chicken farms with a combined capacity of more than 10 million birds are being planned for the Weser-Ems area of Lower Saxony.
These are scandals waiting to happen. Should one company alone be responsible for slaughtering more than 11 million pigs per year? German market leader Tönnies Fleischwerk does just that – reaping annual revenues of €3.9 billion, while inexplicably receiving €2.6 million in EU subsidies.
To counter such market power and potential for abuse, German and EU rules on food safety, animal welfare and the environment are constantly being strengthened. Soon, the EU will introduce an animal welfare label to help consumers buy meat based on the treatment of livestock. The question is whether better labels and tougher rules are keeping up with an ever-changing industry.
Many questions and arguments surrounding this scandal come down to simple economics. In order to succeed, food producers must match their competitors’ prices – just like in any other industry. And this means always looking for ways to keep costs down – whether by hiring cheap labour or buying cheap raw materials. (Sixty percent of Tönnies’ foreign-born employees, for example, come from eastern Europe.)
In both cases, these can be the enemy of food safety and, therefore, public health. Food is fundamentally a low-margin product, often forcing companies to make decisions based more on profits than on health and safety.
The dioxin scandal has had its own fallout. The German Farmer’s Association (DBV) released statements last month saying that it expects the industry to lose €100 million because of the dioxin scandal. DBV spokesman Michael Lohse says there will be no state compensation for the farmers financially damaged by the scandal, because of its criminal nature.
“It’s not an animal epidemic, which would make everything different, because the government would pay for the animals it ordered killed. But in this case there is a guilty party.”
“Turnover will collapse,” said one employee at the Storkower Geflügelmast, a poultry feeding plant in Brandenburg. “The slaughterhouses won’t be able to sell their produce because of the chickens, even if they are dioxin-free. I think it’s a shame that everyone is talking so negatively.”
“A question for the consumer”
The big question surrounding the current scandal is whether it will lead to any substantive changes in how livestock is raised and food is produced in Germany. Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner published a 10-point plan in reaction to the dioxin scandal, the main purpose of which was to separate the circulation of fat used for feed and that of fat used for technical purposes. It met with cautious approval from environmentalists. “It’s a step in the right direction, but now Mrs. Aigner has to show that she means it,” said Greenpeace’s Santen.
The food system in Germany – and all of western Europe, for that matter – is perhaps the safest in the world. Yet every few years we are hit with a major scandal that sends us all running to the nearest organic store (and it did: bio egg sales were up by a third following the scandal, according to the chain Alnatura). How could meat be safe and healthy when it’s so cheap? The dioxin was found, but aren’t there other toxins still hidden? Should we even be eating meat at all?
Amid the contractions and debate, there are two things we can walk away with from the dioxin scandal with certainty. First, the more industrialized our food production system becomes – meaning, the more it relies on chemicals and machines to maximise output and speed – the more opportunities there are for people and animals to get sick.
“There really is a problem of over-consumption,” says Santen. “Huge numbers of animal processing plants are being built in Lower Saxony, where this scandal happened, for example. They produce the meat so cheaply that it can go all round the world, in this case to South Korea. That can’t be the point of agriculture.”
“It is a social problem,” the Greenpeace man adds. “It’s a question for the consumer – does he really want to buy that kind of meat?”
The other certainty is that the scandal further proves that we take food for granted. The thing we need most for life continues to be undervalued. Germans, Europe’s champions of discount shopping, spend only 13 percent of their disposable income on food, compared to 50 percent in the 1950s. Germans pay a premium for world-class health care, schools, transportation and nature reserves. But when it comes to safe and healthy food, many aren’t willing to pay the price.