Minister accuses Serb opposition of smear campaign over milk
* Government already rocked by allegations over mafia
* Agriculture major income earner for EU-hopeful Serbia
* Other Balkan countries test milk over contamination fears
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Serbia's agriculture minister accused the opposition on Wednesday of preying on public health fears over contaminated milk to try to topple a government already under pressure over allegations of links between politicians and the mafia.
The authorities have ordered an unspecified number of dairies to withdraw their milk from shops pending tests for aflatoxin, a potentially carcinogenic product of the Aspergillus fungi species, often found in grains.
However, the Agriculture Ministry statement on Tuesday came after the problem had been publicised by Goran Jesic, the opposition Democratic Party agriculture minister in Serbia's northern agricultural heartland of Vojvodina.
"I believe this is an attempt of the Democratic Party to ... destabilise and topple the government using the most sensitive issue, and that is public health," Agriculture Minister Goran Knezevic told Reuters.
Jesic has repeatedly warned that samples from around a dozen dairies in Serbia and neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia had been contaminated with aflatoxin above the prescribed level of 0.005 microgram per 1 kg.
Knezevic, also a ranking member of the co-ruling Serbian Progressive Party, said the opposition was trying stoke a crisis in Serbia, when it was in fact a regional problem.
"I spoke with agriculture ministers in Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, they are all having the same problem," Knezevic said.
Agriculture made up 20 percent of Serbia's exports in 2012. Subsidies for agriculture account for 3.7 percent of the total 2013 budget, a quarter higher than in 2012, against the backdrop of an economy that contracted about 1.9 percent last year.
Any prolonged dispute over such a major income earner could pile more pressure on the six-month-old ruling Socialist-nationalist coalition that is trying to secure a date to begin accession talks with the European Union.
Prime Minister Ivica Dacic is at the centre of a row over links between him and his aides to an alleged drug smuggler, following a series of media revelations this month.
He has admitted meeting Rodoljub Radulovic, known as Misha Banana, in 2008 and 2009, but denied any wrongdoing. Dacic says he is being targeted by forces trying to halt the government's fight against organised crime and corruption.
The EU is expected to decide in the coming months on whether talks can begin, depending on progress in EU-mediated negotiations aimed at mending ties between Serbia and its former Kosovo province.
Knezevic said initial tests in Serbia suggested the possible presence of aflatoxin above prescribed levels and that milk samples had been sent to the Netherlands for analysis.
"The results will arrive ... within days while all quantities of suspicious milk have been pulled out from shops as a precaution," Knezevic said.
Authorities in neighbouring Bosnia have banned milk imports from some Croatian producers after food inspectors had found the presence of aflatoxin above allowed limits. They have also sent milk samples from some local diaries to be analysed in Vienna.
The scare comes as much of the rest of Europe is dealing with a scandal over the mislabelling of horse meat as beef in some processed foods, highlighting the complexities of the food chain across the trading bloc.
It is not the first time the toxin has been found in Serbia. Last year, Serbian health authorities said about 7 percent of the 2012 corn crop, mainly used as fodder, had been contaminated with the Aspergillus fungi. Agriculture experts said a long drought in the region had affected the quality of fodder.
Knezevic said the government would deliver non-contaminated corn from its rolling stock to farmers "so cows could have healthy milk in days".
Jesic maintained the milk was unsafe. "The key question is who will now go to jail for this," he said on Wednesday. "I am drinking that milk, but my children will not ... until we prove it is safe." (Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Alison Williams)
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