According to recent press reports from the first of the year onwards, up to 5,000 small and intermediate scale poultry and hog farms in the states of Lower Saxony and adjacent North Rhine Westphalia have been affected by feed contaminated with dioxins. The preliminary investigations carried out by state and federal officials in cooperation with the German Farmer’s Union, approximately 500 tons of feed manufactured by Harles and Jentzsch GmbH located in Uetersen was affected.
This figure subsequently grew to over 3,000 tons with shipment to eight states in Germany. The feed mill, which was deprived of its GMP certification and then filed for bankruptcy, apparently incorporated “technical fat” in feed and concentrates which was obtained from a biofuels company Protech AG located in Germany. This plant processes vegetable oils and recycled fat to produce bio-diesel.
Technical fat was shipped to a distributor in Holland who in turn sold product to the feed mill. Obviously the recycled fat and vegetable oil product was contaminated with mineral oil containing dioxins. Fortunately the levels of dioxins assayed in eggs and pork have been below EU maximum standards and the German Institute for Risk Evaluation claimed that the health implications for consumers were negligible.
The perception of toxic taint has led to precautionary recalls of eggs and poultry products in neighboring EU nations and a temporary import ban by South Korea. The German Farmers’ Association (DBV) has called for compensation on behalf of affected member producers.
This case is eerily reminiscent of previous dioxin incidents that included the 1999 episode affecting producers in Belgium, Holland and Germany. Eggs, meat and milk were condemned as a result of feed-grade oil being contaminated with recycled industrial oil and waste. More recently in 2008, hog and dairy farms in a local region of Ireland were affected when feed was contaminated with industrial oil or waste as a result of deviation from accepted good production practices involving strict segregation of vegetable and mineral oils.
The fact that this episode occurred despite quality control programs is obviously a cause for concern. The Economy Minister of North Rhine Westphalia has promised additional legislation which would prevent bio-diesel and feed ingredients being manufactured or processed in the same facility. The Agriculture Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ilse Aigner has also announced impending legislation to separate vegetable and animal fats from mineral oil and waste.
The impact of this episode, although serious, was limited by a prompt recall of potentially affected products. Transparency including open communication and acknowledgement of the problem avoided adverse publicity which is associated with official silence and a perception of regulatory foot dragging. The official spokesman for the Agricultural Ministry in the state of Lower Saxony stated, “We’re shutting everything down first, consumer protection takes priority.”
The action by authorities in Germany closely follows the positive response of the Government of Ireland following their 2008 incident. Removal of potentially contaminated product from shelves, authoritive and clear statements regarding the origin of the problem and corrective action are essential in preventing an incident from becoming a crisis. Although the immediate impact on pork production and export from Ireland persisted over the short term, public and consumer confidence in the ability of farmers and regulatory officials to identify, confine and resolve problems was restored.
The actions in the case of both Germany and Ireland contrast with the 1999 incident in Belgium where the government attempted to suppress information concerning the extent and severity of the problem resulting in a considerable erosion in consumer confidence and rejection of a wide range of dairy, poultry and pork products, ultimately leading to the downfall of the government.
Crisis management programs are essential at the company, regional and national levels with appropriate planning, informative press releases and authoritative spokespersons.