You probably haven’t heard anything about this group of toxic chemicals for almost six years.  Formed during combustion processes such as waste incineration, they’re known to increase the likelihood of cancer after long-term low level exposure. At higher levels, dioxins can be disfiguring or deadly.  

It was six years ago that the world first saw a clear example of the damage that dioxins can cause. The face of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was heavily scarred, the effect of a chloracne outbreak after suspected dioxin poisoning. He might have been poisoned with as little as a drop and significant amounts of poison could remain in his system for the rest of his life. 

Wikipedia paints a much scarier portrait of the 70+ isomers of highly toxic, man-made organic compounds. Byproducts of some industrial processes and waste incineration, “dioxins are fat-soluble, so they tend to accumulate in the tissues of the animals who encounter them and it can take many years for the compounds to break down. Any person living in an industrialized country has dioxins in his or her body–we ingest them when we eat animal fats or animal-fat byproducts.” 

The online information source says “It’s unclear how harmful these low doses could be. Some animals begin to show symptoms of poisoning when they’re given doses only two or three times the level of dioxins in the average person’s body. At higher concentrations, though, there is no doubt about its severity: Dioxin poisoning can cause organ disease, an increased risk of cancer and heart attacks, a suppressed immune system, hormonal imbalances, diabetes, menstrual problems, increased hair growth, weight loss, and, most obviously, the facial cysts known as chloracne. 

When German health officials found traces of dioxin in feed supplies in early January, they immediately banned eggs, pork and poultry and ordered the destruction of 8,000 chickens and a temporary ban on more than 1,000 farms from selling eggs.  For the public, the ban quickly grew from a temporary inconvenience to a full-blown food crisis when the ban expanded and more than 4,500 farms were closed.

News reports coming from the EU say dioxin contamination was traced to animal feed laced with industrial fats that were substituted for vegetable fats at some point in the manufacturing process. The contamination was extreme–up to 77 times acceptable levels of dioxin were present in samples taken at Harles and Jentzsch, the firm at the center of the scandal over contaminated animal feed.  The company had accidentally mixed oils intended for use in biofuels with oils intended for animal feed.

Concerned European Union officials have already called for stricter regulations and more severe penalties, putting increased pressure on food manufacturers to use more sensitive detection instrumentation.

In a move that could signal similar restrictions in the U.S., German Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner unveiled a 10-point plan to safe-guard animal feed.

“We will significantly increase safety standards and sharpen obligations to notify authorities and the duty to inspect,” she said. “Consumers expect this and we are going to do it.”

The plan calls for:

1. Feed producers to obtain product and ingredient authorization. 

2. Separation of production flows. 

3. Expansion of legal requirements for feed production. 

4. Private laboratories to report and positive tests. 

5. A binding positive list of feedstuffs. 

6. An obligation to cover liability. 

7. Revision of the system of penalties. 

8. Expansion of dioxin monitoring to establish an early-warning system. 

9. Improvement of the quality of food and feed controls and inspection. 

10. Transparency for consumers.