Germany shut down more than 4,700 farms and related businesses late Thursday after tests showed animal feed had been contaminated by a cancer-causing chemical. "4,709 farms and businesses are currently closed," including 4,468 in the state of Lower Saxony, northwest Germany, the agriculture ministry said in a statement late Thursday.
The farms will be closed until they are found to be clear of contamination by dioxin, a toxic chemical compound that can cause cancer, and will not be allowed to make any deliveries, the ministry added.
State officials banned deliveries to any businesses involved in the production of the fodder at the centre of the scare, said the agriculture ministry in Berlin.
"This strategy explains the high number of closures," but the bans should be progressively lifted in the coming days once tests had been carried out, the ministry added.
Eight of Germany's 16 states were affected by Thursday's closures.
Worst hit after Lower Saxony was the western state of North Rhine/Westphalia where 152 farms were closed; 52 farms in Schleswig-Holstein and 27 in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.
It was in Lower Saxony that 2,500 tonnes of contaminated fatty acids at the centre of the alert were delivered in November and December, where they were used as animal fodder.
The firm Harles und Jentzsch in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein is alleged to have supplied up to 3,000 tonnes of contaminated fatty acids meant only for industrial usage to around 25 animal feed makers.
Nine samples out of the 20 that were analysed showed dioxin levels higher, or much higher than legal, the Schleswig-Holstein ministry said earlier Thursday.
A spokesman at the agriculture ministry in Berlin defended the measures.
"The states are acting as they must in banning as a precaution -- and this in the absence of concrete results from analyses -- all products, including eggs and meat, which had partially contaminated fodder as their origin," he said.
Food safety was the "absolute priority", he added.
The agriculture ministry has set up a hotline for worried consumers.
Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner meanwhile called for tighter regulations at the European level to protect the food chain in a phone conversation with European Commissioner for Health John Dalli.
Businesses making fatty acids for fodder should not be able to manufacture materials destined for industrial use on the same site, she had told the commissioner.
The German government said earlier that up to 150,000 tonnes of feed were feared to have been contaminated.
The dioxin scare had already resulted in a halt in production at about 1,200 chicken, turkey and pig farms, most of them in northern Germany.
There are around 375,000 farms in Germany.
A dioxin level that exceeded legal levels in eggs was found in late December.
German authorities on Wednesday informed the EU's executive Commission and business partners that 136,000 eggs, or nine tonnes of the product, from contaminated German farms had been exported to the Netherlands.
The European Commission said Thursday the hunt for potentially dioxin-tainted eggs had also turned to Britain.
But a statement Thursday from Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the tainted eggs were not thought to pose a threat.
"The mixing of the eggs will have diluted the levels of dioxins and they are not thought to be a risk to health," said the agency.
Dioxin, a by-product of burning rubbish and industrial activities, can cause miscarriages and other health problems in humans, including cancer.
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