In Belgian supermarkets, the food shelves are bare. The shuttered butcher shops are reminiscent of Hong Kong's silent poultry markets at the height of the bird flu scare. And with days to go before national and European Parliament elections, the resignation of two senior ministers amid accusations of negligence from the European Union has left the Belgian Government reeling. The discovery that up to 80 tonnes of animal feed, contaminated with cancer-causing dioxin, was fed to chickens, pigs and cattle was damaging enough. However, the Government's delays in warning the public, the European Commission and its international trading partners calls the entire national and EU food-safety system into question. Meanwhile consumers all over Europe, still wary of beef after the mad cow disease scare, now wonder what foods they can safely eat. Analysts say consumers are more likely now to boycott controversial genetically modified foods and refuse to buy meat from North America, should the EU be forced to lift its 10-year ban on hormone-treated beef. Neighbouring countries are nervously checking their distribution chains to discover which farms, food processors and retailers received dioxin-laced produce. Asia has not waited to find out. Hong Kong's suspension of meat and dairy sales from Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands appears cautious next to the wider bans on all EU meat and dairy imports imposed by Malaysia and Singapore. The United States has suspended imports of EU poultry and pork products. Belgian poultry breeders reject the EU ban on sales of chicken and eggs produced between January and June 1 as a cynical political show. They say the contaminated feed was supplied in January. Any birds that survived the poisoning would by now have been sold and eaten. That would not be true of contaminated pigs or cattle. But for consumers, food safety campaigners and the EU authorities, the farmers' excuses simply miss the point. The real issue is the laxity of food safety controls. Despite other countries' gleeful rehearsal of Belgian scandals from political bribe-taking to cover-ups of child abuse, the Belgian authorities are not alone in reacting too slowly to food scares. 'We have to stop playing food wars, stop concealing things and practicing culinary nationalism,' French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said. The European Commission, which is threatening legal action against Belgium for not informing it of the dioxin contamination until May 27, is also demanding to know why France and the Netherlands did not speak up for weeks after Belgium had told them of the problem. But consumer activists are equally critical of the commission for failing to tighten animal feed labelling requirements after mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was traced to British feeding practices. Verkest, the firm which supplied the dioxin-feed, denies any wrongdoing. But it is still under investigation and the public prosecutor has appealed against the release of its directors. The company allegedly bought used cooking fat to mix with its feed and, whether or not it knowingly included contaminated fat as its accusers claim, it failed to tell its clients that it had mixed cheap, recycled fat with the fresh product. The European Parliament's committee of inquiry into mad cow disease long ago recommended the EU tighten rules to ensure farmers were aware of what they were feeding animals. That, suggest campaigners hopefully, might have encouraged farmers to think twice before feeding slaughter-house waste to cows and might have put them off feeding reprocessed cooking fat to chickens. Mr Kouchner called for a definitive Europe-wide ban on animal-based feed for chickens and pigs.