Dioxin scare may lead to new and improved food labels

As the German dioxin scare widens, the Czech Agrarian Chamber has been ringing alarm bells, appealing to Czech meat-processing plants not to buy cheap German pork and calling for a change of legislation which would ensure that food labels clearly state the source of food products.

Ivan Fuksa (left), Saxon Agriculture Minister Frank Kupfer, photo: CTK
Following initial assurances that no contaminated poultry, eggs or pork had been imported to the Czech Republic from neighbouring Germany, it recently emerged that some 4,500 kilograms of high-risk pork from farms that were closed down had been delivered to Czech sales outlets and meat processing plants at the end of the year and had most likely already been consumed.

Food inspectors targeting the central and west Bohemian region most at risk now say they have secured a fifth of the suspect imports and are conducting tests. Although no contaminated samples have so far been found, Czech Agriculture Minister Ivan Fuksa has criticized the German authorities for failing to issue a proper warning in time.

“We should have been alerted to the problem immediately and we should have been alerted by our partners. Instead we first learned about the dioxin-scare from the media.”

The country’s Chief Hygiene Officer Michael Vít has issued reassurances to the public, saying that 250 inspectors were out in the field daily and none of the tested samples had shown excessive levels of dioxin.

However the Czech Agrarian Chamber points out that Czech consumers have few guarantees. The country imports half of its overall pork consumption from neighbouring Germany – that’s 17 thousand tons a month, with 85 truckloads of pork arriving in the country daily. Some of it is sold directly, some is processed. Either way it is difficult or almost impossible for consumers to trace the source of the chops or ham they are buying. One option is to ask the butcher –and take his word for it. However food labels can be misleading, because there is no law in place saying that they must state the origin of the given food product.

The country’s chief hygiene officer Michael Vít says he hopes that the German dioxin scare will finally trigger a much-needed change in labeling regulations.

“This is a broader European problem which we have repeatedly brought up in the past –and I hope that the dioxin scandal will finally induce the authorities to take action. The source of a product must always be clearly stated – it is simply not acceptable for imported meat which is processed or packaged in the Czech Republic to carry a Czech label, implying that it is Czech made.”

New stricter labeling regulations may take years to enforce on an EU scale and individual member states, such as France have moved to amend their own regulations faster. The Czech agriculture ministry says it is working on an amendment to that effect and that if it passes smoothly through Parliament a new law could be in place within a matter of months. Czech farmers and food processing companies –who find it hard to compete against cheaper imported goods at the best of times and fear that the price of German pork will now plummet, have jumped on the bandwagon and are advocating a unified Czech-made label which would open the door to a powerful Buy Czech campaign.