EU dioxin scandal linked to illegal use of biodiesel byproduct

By Erin Voegele | January 21, 2011

Contaminated animal feed found in Europe has been traced back to fatty acids produced at a Germany biodiesel plant. However, those fatty acids were clearly marked for industrial use, not animal feed. While the image of biodiesel production seems to be suffering in Europe, the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection has clearly assigned blame to the feed supplier who illegally mixed the fatty acids with its product.

According to the U.S. EPA, the term dioxin refers to family of toxic chemicals that are characterized as likely human carcinogens. The agency further notes that some members of the dioxin family are unintentionally produced as byproducts during most forms of combustion and several industrial chemical processes.  

The Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection in Germany said that dioxin is monitored within the framework of several coordinated control programs within the country. “Furthermore, feed producers in Germany are legally obliged to monitor for dioxin on their own initiative,” said the ministry in a statement. “This self-checking of a compound feed producer revealed analytical finding of dioxin on [Dec. 21]; the competent authority was informed on [Dec. 22]. The first message in the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed issued on [Dec. 27] referred to one consignment (26 tons) of contaminated fatty acids getting mixed with 500 tons of vegetable feed fat.”

According to the ministry, its investigation found that the source of the contaminated fat was originally destined for technology purposes, “but illegally mixed with feed fat in one feed-fat-producing company in Germany.” As a precaution, all feed fat produced at the company from Nov. 11 and later was considered to be possibility contaminated, pending further dioxin testing.

The ministry’s analysis of feed produced with the contaminated fat found a dioxin contamination level of 1.1 to 1.5 nanograms per kilogram (npk). The maximum allowable level of dioxin in the European Union is 0.75 npk of product. Detailed tracing of the supply chain have led the ministry to list approximately 4,800 agricultural holdings as being possible customers of the contaminated feed. According to the ministry, all these holdings were immediately blocked as a precautionary measure. “The authorities lift the ban only if it is proved that feed or products—especially eggs and meat—do not contain higher levels of dioxin than permitted by EU law,” said the ministry. As of Jan. 18, 931 agricultural holdings are still under restriction. This means they are not allowed to sell their animals or animal products domestically. They are also barred from exporting them. “With respect to pork up to now, critical dioxin levels were detected on two of these holdings,” said the ministry. “Products (eggs and meat) from contaminated animals are traced back and destroyed, to make sure that the food chain is not getting affected.”

German biodiesel producer Petrotec AG has been identified as the source of the contaminated fatty acids. A statement released by the company on Jan. 5 states that there has been an erroneous use of its technology-grade fatty acids by a feed producer, “with no legal or commercial consequences for Petrotec apart from increased scrutiny by authorities.”

“Petrotec has acted according to the law and has applied appropriate commercial practices,” said the company in a statement. “We regret that another company seems to have misused our product. In this context we would like to point out that Petrotec is very conscious of its responsibility for its products and thus has always aligned its quality management accordingly. In all contracts, delivery notes and invoices, we have always clearly declared that our fatty acids and other byproducts from used cooking oil are for technical-use only and not for the food and animal feed industry.”

Petrotec has also supplied several facts of the events involved in the dioxin contamination. According to the company, Northern German feed producer Harles & Jentzsch claimed to have received dioxin-contaminated fatty acids from Petrotec’s plant in Emden via Dutch trader Olivet on Jan. 3. The next day, the feed producer admitted they thoughtlessly mixed technical-grade fatty acids into animal feed. Olivet, which is a Petrotec customer, issued a press release on Jan. 4 noting that the fatty acids it sourced from Petrotec—and sold to Harles & Jentzsch—were specifically earmarked for technical purposes and were not meant to be used for animal feed. Also on Jan. 4, government officials confirmed the statements “not for food or feed purposes” and “for technical use” were clearly written an all contracts, invoices and delivery notes.

“The manner in which Petrotec AG has been named by the managing director of the animal feed manufacturer Harles & Jentzsch in connection with the accusations made against Harles & Jentzsch, as well as the subsequent effects on us are not acceptable,” said Petrotec. “Petrotec AG’s lawyers are currently checking what legal actions can be taken and which claims will be made in this context.”

BDI-BioEnergy International AG, a global biodiesel technology provider, has also weighed in on this dioxin issue. “Everyone is talking about the dioxin scandal,” said BDI in a statement. “The culprits have been found. Those who have done nothing wrong are facing tough criticism too, however. As a result of hasty judgments, the biodiesel industry is being [branded] as guilty.”

Referring to the prohibited addition of dangerous waste to animal feed, “which has nothing whatsoever do to with biodiesel production,” BDI CEO Wilhelm Hammer said that “criminal and illegal practices must be punished severely and uncompromisingly.”

According to BDI, the dioxin scandal would never have happened if the appropriate technical know-how was employed. “Customers of BDI-BioEnergy International AG do not sell any fatty acids as byproducts of biodiesel production, because there are no such byproducts,” said the company. “All fatty acids are processed, so no waste products are left over.”


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