Demanding a radical rethink of the Union's approach to food, MEPs called for a new food policy for Europe based on the integrated control of the whole food chain "from stable to table". The lessons of BSE, it was felt, had not been learned. One demand was for the establishment of an authoritative new parliamentary committee of inquiry - along the lines of the recent BSE committee of inquiry - to examine and propose solutions to the crisis sparked by the contamination, with cancer-causing dioxins, of feed for poultry, pigs and cattle in Belgium.
One possibility put forward by MEPs would be the creation of an autonomous body modelled on the US Food and Drugs Administration. Other demands were for improved consumer information, an end to cover-ups, government transparency, financial compensation for farmers, the establishment of food quality labelling and certification and a ban on the recycling of "exhausted" fats and on the use of meat and bone meal in animal feed.
Economic interests should not prevail over food quality, it was said, and there was strong criticism of the Agenda 2000 decisions on this score. Some MEPs took the view that the profit motive was gaining a stranglehold over farm production in Europe at the expense of food safety.
The Belgian Ministers for Agriculture and Health, Mr Herman van ROMPUY and Mr Luc van den BOSSCHE, who spoke at the meeting, were given a hostile reception. They defended the action taken by Belgium in response to the crisis, admitting that mistakes had been made but pointing out that vast numbers of checks were being carried out. They stressed that the original source of the contamination was still unknown and maintained that the problem was a "one-off".
However, the Consumer Protection and Agriculture Commissioners, Mrs Emma BONINO and Mr Franz FISCHLER, slated the Belgian Government for its "chaotic" handling of the crisis. The Belgian authorities were now behaving much as the UK Government had when the BSE crisis broke, said Mrs BONINO. They had delayed reporting the contamination to the Commission until late May although it had first caused poultry to fall sick in February and had been traced in April to the presence of dioxins in supplies of fat used in the production of animal feedingstuffs. Furthermore, Mr FISCHLER said, the Commission was considering infringement proceedings against Belgium for failing to implement the measures demanded by the Commission for milk.
Mr FISCHLER also warned that dioxin contamination was not limited to Belgium as it had been found in Germany and test results were still awaited in France. His fears were echoed by MEPs who also queried the situation in Austria and the Netherlands and felt that contaminated material could still be at large. Some asked whether material banned in Belgium was still being exported to other countries, such as Spain, which had previously suffered the scandal of contaminated olive oil. In response, the Belgian Health Minister, Mr van ROMPUY, said he considered that since EU legislation had been applied there was no need to inform the Spanish authorities of such exports.
Other MEPs voiced "lurking suspicions" of systematic fraud and concerns about a black market, with "mafiosi involvement", in suspect or banned products, with polluted waste material apparently beng recycled back into the food chain.
The Council representative, Mr Erwin JORDAN, who surprised MEPs with the brevity of his statement, regretted that the Belgian authorities had left their own population and that of their European partners in the dark about the problem for weeks. The Council and the Commission were agreed that the rules on feed products must be beefed up.
This was welcomed by the Agriculture and Environment Committtees which will be asking the new parliament to take up the dioxin contamination crisis at its constituent session in July. The committees want it to seek statements by the Commission and the Council and to call on the Commission President-designate, Romano PRODI, to say what steps the new Commission will be taking in the area of food safety.