Fipronil, an insecticide used to treat lice and ticks, has been detected in Dutch and Belgian eggs, prompting a major recall last week as millions of eggs were pulled from shelves across Europe. Markets including Germany, the UK and Switzerland have been forced to issue recalls of affected eggs supplied by Dutch farms.
It is believed that fipronil, which is banned for use on animals destined for human consumption, may have entered the food chain illegally. Criminal investigations in Belgium and the Netherlands are underway.
Belgium under fire
The Belgian response to the scare was widely criticised after it emerged that the country’s food safety authority, the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FAFSC), was aware of the contamination a month before reporting the issue to the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).
A spokesperson for the FAFSC said the information was not shared because of a judicial investigation into “illegal trafficking”. Belgium law prohibits comment on judicial investigations.
Following censure of this approach, Belgium launched a parliamentary hearing when Agriculture Minister Denis Ducarme said Belgian’s food safety agency obtained an internal Dutch document that “supports the observation of the presence of fipronil in Dutch eggs at the end of November 2016”.
He hit out: “When a country like the Netherlands, one of the world’s biggest exporters of eggs, does not pass on this kind of information, that is a real problem.”
The Dutch authorities responded with a flat-out denial that the issue was on their radar in 2016. “These claims are not accurate,” a spokesperson for the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) told FoodNavigator.
The NVWA conceded that it received a tip-off in November last year but stressed there was “no evidence” of a food safety risk.
The NVWA receives “hundreds of tips and reports” concerning “suspected fraud” on an annual basis, the spokesperson explained.
“In November 2016 news from an anonymous source reached the NVWA that fipronil was being used illegally in cleaning poultry accommodations in an attempt to prevent poultry mite (Dermanyssus gallinae) infestation. At the time there was no evidence that there were any acute food safety risks involved. There was also no evidence that eggs contained fipronil,” the spokesperson stressed.
Indeed, it was not until 19 June this year, when the NVWA received specific information via “informal channels originating in Belgium” that fipronil had indeed been found in Belgian eggs, that suspicions were raised the spokesperson concluded.
Meat tests a ‘precautionary measure’
The Dutch food safety authorities are now taking the cautionary measure of testing poultry meat produced at farms where both laying and broiler hens are raised, the food safety official revealed.
“The testing of meat for fipronil is a precautionary measure at a handful of farms that keep broiler chickens and laying hens on the same farm (in different stables). If the laying hens where treated with fipronil, and fipronil was found in the eggs of the laying hens, the meet of the broiler chickens is tested for fipronil, before the broiler chickens are brought to the slaughterhouse.”
No evidence of fipronil in poultry meat has been made public to date.