Fipronil is an insecticide frequently used in veterinary products to treat fleas, mites and marks. However, it is banned from use in animals that will enter the food chain, such as chickens.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) fipronil is "moderately toxic" when consumed by humans and in large quantities, it can cause kidney, liver or thyroid damage.
The first reports of contaminated eggs were fed into the European Union’s rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF) earlier this week when a recall was issued by Belgian food safety regulators.
Belgium’s Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) stressed that the situation is being tightly managed. “Trade in eggs suspected of being contaminated has been stopped by the Food Agency. All companies affected by potential egg contamination… are blocked and samples are being analysed,” the FASFC said.
“On the basis of the risk analysis carried out and the first results received, no public health hazard has been identified to date. Some results have highlighted a presence of fipronil that is not dangerous for humans. Since this substance is prohibited in eggs, the FASFC has ordered the complete destruction of the lots concerned,” the regulator added.
In neighbouring Holland, the Netherlands Food and Consumer Products Safety Authority (NVWA) has temporarily closed down about 180 Dutch farms linked to the scare.
“This is due to research into the use of fipronil in poultry companies. The use of fipronil is not permitted in the poultry sector,” the agency said in a statement.
The Dutch regulatory body is advising consumers to avoid white eggs with the code 2-NL-4015502. The fipronil content in these eggs is so high that consumption poses an “acute danger to public health”.
The NVWA also says consumers should not to feed eggs produced by at least 27 other farms to children. A full list of eggs found to contain fipronil in smaller doses can be found here.
As well as alerting consumers, the NVWA is issuing guidance to processed food manufacturers so that they can trace whether their egg supplies are affected. However, the agency suggested that consumption of processed food products should not pose a health risk because “it is likely that fipronil is strongly diluted in those cases”.
Authorities in Belgium and the Netherlands have both launched criminal investigations.
Belgium’s FASFC revealed that it is conducting a probe in conjunction with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Meanwhile, the NVWA confirmed a criminal investigation has also been launched. Further details were not forthcoming due to the early and ongoing nature of the investigation.
It is understood that the focus of the investigations is on a cleansing agent, which was transferred with Fipronil.
Dutch media reports that the client lists of two Flanders-based companies specialising in anti-lice treatments are currently being scrutinised.
Dutch daily Trouw claimed one of these may have clients in the UK, France and Poland. There is currently no suggestion that contaminated eggs are being sold in those countries.
Germany on high alert
The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) estimates that “at least” three million contaminated eggs have entered the German market from the Netherlands.
The food safety authorities in Germany’s federal states have recalled the affected batches and are “intensively” checking whether further batches could be contaminated.
“It is also being examined whether and to what extent the active substance can also be found in laying hens in Germany,” the BMEL noted. “There is no specific health hazard for consumers.”