Recommended Continental Breakfast: Eggs Over Easy, Hold the Dioxin

The FDA doesn't recommend avoiding any particular food to limit dioxin exposure other than its generally recommended diet. Of course there's the option of going vegan, the diet found to have the lowest exposure to dioxins.
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Dioxin's turned up in European eggs.

If you're in Germany at the moment, you're probably holding off on the eggs and sausages for now, at least until the dioxin contamination problem is resolved.

The discovery of widespread dioxin contamination in German eggs has forced Berlin to close almost 5,000 farms. Meantime, concerns grow that contaminated egg products have made their way beyond German borders into the Netherlands and Britain; it's unclear whether they've reached other countries. But not taking any chances, Korea, Slovakia, and, ironically, China have banned German imports of animal products, as the scare moves from eggs to pork and chickens.

The good news for Americans? We don't import eggs from Germany. Still, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is scrambling to see if we've imported contaminated pork from Germany.

How Long Has This Been Going On

The egg contamination was apparently caused by the addition of dioxin-laden fats to animal feed. Investigations by German authorities show that this bout of contamination (there have been others) dates
back to November 2010. Indications are that it may not be a one-bad-batch incident but part of an ongoing international snafu or worse.

So how'd it happen? The somewhat complicated chain of contamination and distribution reflects our global marketplace.

Apparently a German feed manufacturer/supplier, Harles & Jentzsch, had been buying waste fatty acids (oils) from a Dutch feed dealer that reportedly imported the oils from Petrotec, a Hamburg-based biodiesel company. Turns out that these oils, used to provide the fat content needed in animal feed, were laced with dioxin.

Harles & Jentzsch distributed the contaminated feed to German farms whose eggs and poultry
products were then sold to national and international buyers.

Incompetence or malfeasance? Not known. Petrotec says the oils it sold the feed manufacturer were meant to be used
as industrial lubricants and never intended to enter the food
chain. Harles & Jentzsch claims it assumed "the fatty
acid waste from palm, soy and rapeseed oil" used in biofuels was suitable for animal feed.

What's worse than such gross assumptions: the incident may not be isolated. German media (here and here) are reporting that the feed manufacturer has used this same source for years. Could well be that contaminated eggs have gone unnoticed for some time.

Sunny Side Down: The Long History of Dioxin-Contaminated Feed

As shocking as this is, unfortunately it's not new.

In July 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found animal feeds contaminated with dioxin that contributed to elevated levels in chickens, eggs and catfish.

In 1999, dioxin contamination in poultry and eggs from Belgium was traced to animal feed contaminated with illegally disposed of PCB-based waste oil.

Dioxins in Every Bite?

All this shows how screw-ups with animal feed can lead to elevated levels of dioxin in food. But with or without these screw-ups, dioxins would likely still show up on your dinner plate.

Dioxins are a family of persistent organic pollutants that are global in reach and persistent in the environment. Once dioxins find their way into the food web, they tend to stay there accumulating in fats, and slowly making their up way to us. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food of animal origin contributes to about 80 percent of our overall exposure.

So where do dioxins come from? For the most part, they're byproducts of various industrial processes including smelting, paper production, and the manufacture of some herbicides and pesticides. Dioxins also form from incomplete combustion of coal, oil, wood, and waste incineration. And they occur naturally for example from volcanic eruptions and forest fires. But since the industrial age, manmade sources have dominated.

Dioxin the Carcinogen

With a body of research cataloging its dangers for 50 years, dioxins may be one of the best studied environmental toxins.

In 1997 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified dioxin as a known human carcinogen, with the U.S. National Toxicology Program following suit in 2001.

Acute exposure to dioxins can cause liver impairment and skin disorders like chloracne. (Dioxin poisoning was suspected in the facial scarring of Viktor Yushchenko, the former opposition leader in Ukraine -- who became its president and whom some believe was deliberately poisoned in 2004.)

Long-term exposure is linked to impaired immune systems, nervous systems, endocrine systems and reproductive functions. (More on the harmful health effects of dioxin exposure.)

What's a Consumer to Do?

Good question; few answers. EPA's steps to lower that presence by limiting dioxin emissions have been paying off -- U.S. emissions have been dropping, and limited data suggest dioxin levels in foods have decreased. (U.K. and Irish emissions are down, too.) But because dioxin is a persistent pollutant, dioxins will be showing up in our food for a long, long time.

Modest monitoring programs by the U.S.D.A. and FDA have generally detected low dioxin levels in the limited products they've surveyed, but in at least two instances from the late 1990s significantly elevated concentrations were found.

Currently, our standards for safe dioxin levels are based on an international metric, but now EPA has proposed a standard [pdf] to avoid non-cancer health effects. A not so reassuring aspect of this emerging standard is a report by the Environmental Working Group that Americans routinely ingest dioxins at levels close to EPA's proposed safe dose.

The FDA doesn't recommend avoiding any particular food to limit dioxin exposure other than its generally recommended diet -- wide in variety, low in fats. Course there's the option of going vegan, the diet found to have the lowest exposure to dioxins. Or you could do as the Germans have reportedly done in the wake of this contamination episode and go organic. (And maybe wash it down with a good German beer just to avoid any bacteria, at least.) Your call.

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