The contaminated egg crisis now extends beyond Europe’s borders, with products identified in Hong Kong according to the European Commission, which has summoned the affected EU countries and asks them to stop blaming each other. “We must work together to draw the necessary lessons and move forward rather than waste energy in naming the culprits,” European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis told AFP on Friday.
The Commissioner called a meeting of ministers and representatives of food safety agencies in all EU countries involved, “as soon as all the facts are available to us”, a priori on September 26. Germany and France – where some farms are blocked – have sharply criticized Belgium and the Netherlands. In these two countries, more than 200 laying hen farms were contaminated after the premises were disinfected with products containing fipronil, an insecticide whose use is however strictly prohibited in the poultry sector.
Belgium accused the Netherlands of having treated lightly an anonymous information received in November 2016 on the use of fipronil in Dutch farms. The whistleblower behind the intelligence, Nick Hermsen, hit the nail on the head, telling the media on Friday that he had named the two companies behind the fraud: the Belgian sanitary products distributor Poultry-Vision and the pest control firm ChickFriend. Mr. Hermsen identifies himself as a former partner of the manager of Poultry-Vision.
Holland concedes “mistakes”
“In any crisis, mistakes are made. This is absolutely the case for this one,” Dutch Minister of Health Edith Schippers admitted Thursday. “But there was no indication that fipronil was found in the eggs at that time,” she added to explain why the authorities had not carried out checks by the end of 2016. The The scandal, which came to light last week with the withdrawal of millions of eggs from Dutch and German supermarkets, had in fact been brewing for several months.
Paris announced that nearly 250,000 eggs contaminated with fipronil had been placed on the French market “since April”. In Belgium, the food safety agency goes back to January 2017 in its controls of blocked farms, according to Danny Coulier, boss of the organization representing the poultry sector.
At the origin of the case, the use of fipronil by disinfection companies working on farms in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Pas-de-Calais (northern France). According to the European Commission, suspect eggs were distributed – fresh, cooked or in liquid form – in Switzerland, Hong Kong, France, Sweden, United Kingdom, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Denmark. A total of 17 countries, including 15 members of the EU, are therefore affected.
The organic eggs concerned
First Asian country concerned, Hong Kong “said it had found” contaminated Dutch eggs, said the European executive. Hong Kong Health Minister Sophia Chan said on Saturday that local authorities were stepping up their controls.
“The Center for Food Safety now closely inspects eggs coming from Europe, whether at the import level or at the retail level,” Chan said. The CFS said on Friday it had twice found Dutch eggs that exceeded Hong Kong’s allowable limits for fipronil.
Organic eggs are not spared, since the fipronil antiparasitic used fraudulently in Belgium and the Netherlands was presented as a product based on eucalyptus and menthol. In the Netherlands, organic breeders “feel duped by the ChickFriend company, which had sold them a clean and natural product”, told AFP Miriam van Bree, spokesperson for the organization for the organic farming Bionext.
“No ‘acute risk’
In the judicial part of the scandal, two leaders of the company ChickFriend, suspected of having “applied the product in poultry farms”, were arrested Thursday in the Netherlands, where justice also has in its sights “the trader” who distributed fipronil in the country. In Belgium, the investigation which now targets 26 suspicious people and companies, including veterinarians, according to the media. Nearly 6,000 liters of “banned products” – fipronil according to the media – were seized in July at Poultry-Vision, said justice.
Contaminated eggs present a priori limited health risks, since the doses of fipronil potentially ingested remain largely below the amounts considered to be harmful. “The maximum amount of (contaminated) eggs that can be eaten varies from one (for a child of 1 to 3 years) to ten per day” for an adult, “without exposing himself to an acute risk”, estimated the Food Safety Agency (Anses) in France.
Fipronil is commonly used against lice and ticks on pets, but banned in the food chain. In high doses, it can cause neurological disorders and vomiting.