(CN) - A now-defunct German meat processor cannot collect damages after food safety regulators reported "revoltingly unhygienic conditions" and rancid meat, the EU's high court ruled Thursday.
Berger Wild GmbH sued the German state of Bavaria after a consumer protection minister announced preliminary findings of unsafe food and unsanitary conditions at several Berger Wild plants in 2006. Specifically, the minister said in several press releases that Berger's products "gave off a rancid, nauseous, musty or acidic smell," and that six of nine samples tested showed that "the putrefaction process had already started."
In addition to the accusations of revoltingly unhygienic conditions, the minister labeled Berger Wild's products unfit for human consumption and issued a recall for its wild game venison. Several days later, in a speech to Bavarian lawmakers, the minister said that Germany was safe from the tainted meats since the negative publicity had forced the company into bankruptcy.
In its action before a Munich regional court, Berger Wild said the minister's statements provoked considerable damages. The company argued that food-safety laws require only that the public be informed of actual threats to human health - not of findings that food is unfit for human consumption.
For its part, Bavaria said the law allows public officials to issue public alerts even when there is no actual health threat. But while the Munich court found the alert lawful, it asked the Court of Justice of the European Union to rule whether EU food-safety laws pre-empt German national law.
The Court of Justice of the European Union concluded Thursday that EU law does not pre-empt German food-safety laws, but that food found to be unfit for human consumption is also considered unsafe under EU law.
"Insofar as a foodstuff is unacceptable for human consumption and accordingly unfit, it does not fulfill the food safety requirements under [EU food safety law] and is, in any event, such as to prejudice the interests of consumers, the protection of whom is one of the objectives of food law," the opinion states. "It follows that where food, though not injurious to human health, does not comply with the aforementioned food safety requirements because it is unfit for human consumption, national authorities may inform the public thereof."
Berger Wild owner Karl Berger told the German newspaper Westfalische Nachrichten that the ruling from the Luxembourg-based court did not come as a surprise.
"I was the biggest game entrepreneur in Europe with the highest hygiene precautions," Berger said. "The next day I was suddenly the biggest food criminal."
Berger, who now runs a wild game meat business in neighboring Austria, calls the affair "a staged wild game scandal" on his new company's website.
The EU justices tasked the referring German national court with disposing of the case in light of the ruling, which is binding on the national court.