Contaminated eggs: Netherlands failed to sound alarm, says Belgium

Food safety scandal deepens as Dutch authorities are accused of not passing on early discovery of fipronil in eggs

Europe’s latest food scandal has deepened as Belgium accused the Dutch authorities of failing to sound the alarm after discovering eggs were being contaminated with a harmful insecticide as early as November last year.

The Belgian agriculture minister, Denis Ducarme, told a parliamentary hearing that his officials had obtained an internal Dutch document that reported “the observation of the presence of fipronil in Dutch eggs at the end of November 2016”.

“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,” Ducarme said. The minister suggested the evidence had only come to him “by chance”, rather than through official channels.

The insecticide scandal became public on 1 August when it was revealed that tests had found that fipronil, a toxic anti-lice agent, banned from use in the production of products for human consumption, had found its way into the food chain.

Authorities in the Netherlands ordered eggs pulled from supermarket shelves, and temporarily closed down nearly around 180 farms. Millions of eggs were subsequently removed from shelves in Belgium and Germany.

Food safety agencies in Britain, France, Sweden and Switzerland have been also put on alert to check the origin of eggs sold in their stores. Chickens bred for meat are also undergoing spot checks due to fears of contamination. Millions of hens are to be slaughtered as a consequence of the scandal, leaving the poultry industry in disarray.

A Dutch company, ChickFriend, and a Belgian firm, Poultry-Vision, are both under investigation.

The likelihood that the scandal would lead to recriminations had already been signalled when Germany demanded answers over claims that Belgium had known of the contamination since June.

However the Belgian minister, who has only recently been appointed, used a hearing in which he was expected to be defending his officials to claim it was, in fact, the Dutch authorities who had questions to answer.

Ducarme said he had written to his Dutch counterpart for an explanation, and had also spoke to the European commission’s agriculture commissioner, “who seemed to already have this information”.

“If we had seen this information communicated to our respective agencies, vigilance concerning fipronil would have been greatly increased,” Ducarme said. The minister said that the Belgian authorities had only delayed reporting the discovery of fipronil after finding it in June because the levels found were well below the threshold allowed by the EU.

Ducarme added of the criminal investigation under way: “The defrauders must be punished harshly by the courts because in order to enrich themselves personally, they have not hesitated to risk the health of consumers.”

The Dutch food and goods watchdog, the NVWA, responded by admitting they had received a tipoff that the banned insecticide had been used in November, but rejecting the claim they withheld knowledge of any contamination of food products.

“The allegations that we knew about fipronil in eggs in November 2016 are untrue,” NVWA’s inspector general, Rob van Lint, said in a statement.

The watchdog had body received an anonymous tipoff that fipronil had been used to clean chicken pens in order to combat red lice, he said. “At that time there was no indication of an acute danger to food safety. There was not a single indication that fipronil could also be present in eggs,” van Lint added.

The Dutch Party for the Animals (PvdD) called for the their parliament to return from recess because of the statements made by the Belgian minister. A European commission spokesman said the commission would “follow up” on the allegations.

Carsten Reymann, the spokesman for Germany’s Agriculture Ministry, said he could not comment on the claim that the Dutch knew of the contamination in November. “What’s needed here is total clarity,” he said. “We have to know when this substance was used and where. And what happened to the eggs that were produced.”

Ducarme also said food safety controls have been boosted after contaminated eggs were discovered in Belgium last month.

Almost all eggs tested in Belgium have been found to contain very low levels of the insecticide.

Exposure to Fipronil can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. Long-term exposure to great quantities can cause thyroid, liver and kidney damage, and even lead to seizures.

The EU’s commissioner for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, responded to the row by saying the commission would improve coordination in the future. He tweeted: “Committed and determined to make every effort to enhance the transparency, coordination and cooperation between member states.”


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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