ANALYSIS - Europe again mulls animal feed as waste disposal
AMSTERDAM - Will Europe\'s food supply ever be safe?
In recent years horrified Europeans have watched news of cancer-causing dioxin, sewage sludge and ground-up dead animals ending up as ingredients in animal feed.
In the aftermath of each scandal, officials have scrambled to assure consumers that regulations were being toughened to prevent a repeat.
But the continent this summer is going through a familiar routine of angry farmers, quarantined farms and halted exports after a banned growth hormone found its way into the feed troughs of thousands of livestock.
Farmers and feed makers have pointed fingers at EU officials as moving too slowly to beef up regulations, but they have also raised a more fundamental question.
Can any guarantees be given in an industry that routinely uses bizarre waste products as foodstuffs for animals?
\"It is unacceptable that animal feed is still regarded as a cheap waste disposal system,\" said FEFAC, the lobby group that represents Europe\'s 27 billion euro ($27.21 billion) commercial animal feed industry.
EU\'s farmer lobby group COPA/COGECA said they had had enough \"garbage from compound feed manufacturers and enough sweet words\" from the European Commission.
In the latest crisis, 11 out of the 15 European Union countries, including half of all Dutch pig farmers, found their animals were eating feed laced with hormone medroxyprogesterone-acetate (MPA), which is banned for use in livestock and believed to cause infertility in humans.
Irish officials say they traced the hormone contamination to waste water from a pharmaceutical plant there. The company has denied wrongdoing, saying it sent the waste for disposal and had no idea it would end up in animal feed.
Researchers and industry figures argue that proper use of waste products such as from yoghurt makers and potato processors fed to animals benefits the environment through recycling.
But to guard against more scandals, officials must move faster to put in place harmonised EU regulations for every step along the food chain, they say.
For hundreds of years, farmers have used waste products for animal rations.
Less than one-third, or 125 million tonnes of the 400 million tonnes of food gobbled up by European livestock each year comes from commercial feed makers.
The rest comes from the farmers themselves, including self-grown grains and hay, plus cheap waste products purchased from creative suppliers who dream up new ways to sell by-products instead of paying to have them dumped.
\"There are hundreds of things people use. A waste product can cost a lot of money to put it in a landfill, so it\'s just an economical way of looking at it,\" said Willem van Laarhoven, a Dutch agricultural consultant who used to work for a feed firm.
One German broker suggested marketing ground up chicken feathers as a good source of protein while others use remains of pig intestines processed by pharmaceutical firms for medicines.
If proper methods are followed, such as heat treatment to kill bio-organisms, even strange-sounding ingredients can be made safe for animal feed, experts say. But the wide range of suppliers and ingredients proves a nightmare to regulate.
\"On the one hand, using waste is cheaper and better for the environment since it reduces rubbish, but there is more risk involved,\" said researcher Sandra van der Kroon at the Dutch Agricultural Economic Research Institute.
The institute has proposed a \"double-check\" system, where both suppliers and farmers are responsible for ensuring that ingredients come from approved sources.
The EU has come under fire for moving too slowly after a major scandal in 1999, when fat from a Belgian rendering plant was contaminated with dioxin, probably from motor oil.
Europe\'s feed industry at the time urged the EU to impose uniform regulations across its 15 members, but the proposal only made it into a white paper, said FEFAC Secretary General Alexander Doering.
In the wake of the current scandal, however, EU officials now appear to be moving to implement such proposals.
An EU official told Reuters last week that a major reform of controls of food and feed was expected to be ready by the end of the year along with a revamp of the legal framework of the entire feed sector, toughening up registration of firms.
\"We have been calling for it for the past three years without success. It\'s a pity to see that it\'s only a crisis that makes things move,\" Doering said.
Currently, all commercial feed makers are required to have stringent certification, but not their suppliers, a move which probably would have averted the current crisis, he added.
If Dutch feed makers and farmers had demanded their suppliers be certified, they likely would never have purchased glucose syrup laced with MPA from now bankrupt Belgian firm Bioland, which was not registered with food safety authorities.
Belgian prosecutors are probing Bioland.
But even if safety regulations are toughened, experts say there will never be any 100 percent guarantees over food purity.
\"If someone wants to commit a fraud, it is very difficult to stop it. It is impossible to test for the hundreds of chemicals that you would never think would be put in animal feed,\" said Dutch Agriculture Ministry spokesman Gerard Westerhof.
Story by Eric Onstad
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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