Tests had shown that fats produced by the feed company Harles & Jentzsch and used to enrich animal feed contained up to 58.17 nanogrammes of dioxin per kilogrammes, the Agriculture Minister in the state of Schleswig-Holstein announced. The acceptable limit is 0.75 nanogrammes.
The astonishingly high contamination level was found among the first 30 samples. Authorities still have another 88 samples to test. Of the first 30 tested, just 12 measured below the safe limit.
"The first indications point to a high level of illegal activity," a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner told a regular news conference on Friday.
But Siegfried Sievert, chief executive officer of Harles & Jentzsch told Spiegel TV he did not know where the high levels of dioxins originated.
"We did not use any fats that were not permitted," he said. "We are conducting tests, we are working closely with the authorities. We have been taken completely unaware," he added.
The firm, based in the Schleswig-Holstein town of Uetersen, has supplied about 3,000 tonnes of fats believed contaminated by the toxic chemical dioxin to other animal feed manufacturers in several states.
Authorities announced Monday they had begun closing down farms around the country out of fears that the dangerous contaminant dioxin may have found its way into eggs, poultry meat and pork via tainted animal feed.
The firm has admitted it was “careless” in mixing fatty acids meant only for industrial use into animal feed, leaving that feed potentially contaminated with the harmful chemical dioxin.
Also on Friday, a media report said Harles & Jentzsch had known for at least nine months that its products were tainted.
A self-assessment showed positive results for unacceptable levels of dioxin on March 19, last year but was not reported to authorities, daily Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung reported.
This test report, conducted by a private laboratory, was seized by authorities on December 29 and has been passed on to the state prosecutor.
The Agriculture Minister in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein – the state where the suspect firm, Harles & Jentzsch, is situated – confirmed the information.
It means that contaminated products have been sold and used for nearly 10 months. It was only on December 27 that authorities became aware that contamination was occurring, a spokesman for Schleswig-Holstein Agriculture Minister Juliane Rumpf said.
There were also noticeable problems with the firm after the March 2010 self-monitoring, the minister's spokesman said.
Other firms are also implicated in the scandal. The Lower Saxony firm Wulfa-Mast from the town of Dinklage actually sparked the first concerns about the industry when it submitted an amended self-assessment return on December 23. Now it has emerged that the firm knew a month earlier of the contamination in a batch of mixed fats. Their lab results had been received on November 27.
“Apparently, Wulfa-Mast wanted to avoid damage to their own company at the expense of farmers and consumers,” Lower Saxony Agriculture state secretary Friedrich-Otto Ripke told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung.
Daily Westfalen-Blatt meanwhile reported that a report from the Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister stated that the transport firm Lübbe, based in Bösel, had stored and mixed fatty acids without approval. Their manufacture of the products was therefore illegal, ministry spokesman Gert Hahne told the paper.
Because the firm was registered as a transport company only, there had been no oversight of its animal feed products.
There was the suspicion that Harles & Jentzsch had used the transport firm to avoid monitoring of its own production, Hahne told the paper. Fatty acids contaminated with dioxin were then supplied from Bösel to animal feed manufacturers around the country.
The number of farms and agriculture firms affected by the scandal has meanwhile continued to grow. The federal Consumer Ministry said that 4,709 farms and businesses had now been closed as a precaution. The majority are in Lower Saxony, where 4,468 farms and businesses have been shut down.