BERLIN (AP) — German authorities ordered hundreds of pigs slaughtered Tuesday after tests showed high levels of a cancer-causing chemical for the first time in swine, as the nation's dioxin scandal widened beyond poultry and eggs.
The top agriculture official in northern Germany's Lower Saxony state demanded the cull after tests found illegal levels of dioxin in swine at a farm near Verden that purchased tainted feed from the company believed to be responsible for the scandal.
German firm Harles & Jentzsch GmbH, which produced fat used in the tainted feed pellets, is being investigated over allegations it did not alert authorities to the tainted product for months. Tests have shown that fat samples contained more than 70 times the permitted amount of dioxin.
"We were specifically investigating this farm, because they had bought their livestock feed from Harles & Jentzsch," Lower Saxony's Agriculture Minister Gert Hahne said.
Hahne did not know yet how high exactly the dioxin levels in the pigs were, but said they were above the allowed maximum.
The scandal broke last week when German investigators found excessive levels of dioxin in eggs and some chicken meat. Authorities then froze sales of poultry, eggs and, as a precaution, pork, from thousands of farms as some countries banned German farm products and British supermarkets pulled tainted quiches, cakes and other products with eggs from their shelves.
Some 558 farms still remained closed on Tuesday, said Holger Eichele, a spokesman for the federal agricultural ministry.
Germans loves their pork. In 2009, about 7.7 million tons of meat were produced in Germany — pork being the No. 1 at almost 68 percent, followed by poultry at 17 percent and beef at 15 percent, according to the Meat Industry Association. Some 1.4 million tons of German pork was exported in 2009, mostly to other European Union countries.
Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner has said officials were working nonstop to find out who and what had contaminated the feed and vowed tough legal action against those responsible. She said companies should be banned from producing both industrial fats and fats used for livestock, to avoid the possibility that industrial fats could end up in animal feed. She also vowed to propose tighter controls on dioxin monitoring.
Harles & Jentzsch chief Siegfried Sievert has said the company believed that byproducts from palm, soy and rapeseed oil used to make organic diesel fuels were safe for use in livestock feed.
In Brussels, the EU was considering either a voluntary or legislative system to better monitor potential health threats in fat for animal feed, said Frederic Vincent, the spokesman for Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli.
The new system will have to make that fat for animal feed is kept separate from that made for industrial use, Vincent said.
EU officials met representatives of fat producers on the topic but "we were somewhat disappointed by the absence of proposals from the industry," he said.
The German dioxin scandal is the fourth in the EU over the past decade — and each time fat made for industrial use ended up in animal feed. Germany has had another dioxin scandal in the past and so did Belgium and Ireland.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said Tuesday the tainted feed had also been fed to Danish hens but concluded that "right now there are no health problems for consumers" if they eat the eggs.
Jan M. Olsen contributed reporting from Copenhagen, and Gabriele Steinhauser from Brussels.