Contaminated Dutch eggs should be a wake-up call for retailers, says BFREPA

An official Dutch report into last year’s fipronil crisis has heavily criticised egg companies and Government bodies for failing to take food safety more seriously.

Millions of birds were culled, millions of eggs destroyed and food products were withdrawn from supermarket shelves across Europe after fipronil – a chemical banned from use on animals in the food chain – was found in eggs. Investigations subsequently found that the chemical had been used in a treatment for red mite in laying hens. Traces of the chemical were found in eggs or chickens in eight European Union countries, although UK farms were found to be clear of fipronil.

Just recently, nearly a year after the original scandal, more fipronil has been found on three Dutch farms and some 73,000 Dutch eggs have been withdrawn from sale in Germany. The Ranger has been told by Dutch authorities that they believe the new contamination may have been picked up from wash-down fluid soaked onto fields from when sheds were originally washed down.

Now a committee established to look into last year’s crisis in the Netherlands has produced a damning report. It says that companies in the egg chain, the NVWA (Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority) and the ministries of VWS (Ministry of Health) and LNV (Ministry of Agriculture) gave insufficient priority to food safety. Companies in the egg chain did not fulfil their legal responsibility. Food safety received too little attention at the NVWA, says the report. It also says that politics and Government have too limited a view on their own role in relation to food safety and only come into action when an incident or crisis occurs.

“Economic and financial interests should never take precedence over the importance of food safety,” said former Justice Minister Winnie Sorgdrager, who was president of the committee looking into the scandal. “Food safety must be given priority, both among the companies in the egg chain, as well as at the NVWA and the relevant ministries. The egg sector has been struggling for years with the problem of blood lice. Suddenly there was a panacea. There should have been alarm bells in the sector itself. It also took far too long before action came after the reports and there was too long uncertainty about the risks to public health. That says something about how it is arranged in our system. Food safety must be well secured. There are countless opportunities for all parties to limit risks of this type of incident. “

In the United Kingdom, egg industry leaders have responded to the Dutch report by calling for improved egg safety standards in the European Union.

Ian Jones of British Lion egg processors, said, “It’s great that the Dutch Government has written this report, which along with the recent UK government report, shows that egg production standards in the UK are higher and more effective.

 “Since the fipronil scandal broke last year, a number of UK food businesses have continued to import non-UK eggs and egg products and if they ignore these findings too, then those food manufacturers, caterers, wholesalers and retailers will face criticism of being complicit in supporting standards which can be lower.

 “With a number of other major egg safety issues recently reported, including a new fipronil in eggs incident in the Netherlands, we hope that the report acts as a wake-up call for egg producers in Europe and further afield, and that they start to put in place new food safety standards to guard against future incidents.”

The UK is estimated to have imported 1.9 billion eggs in 2017. The majority of eggs imported into the UK are destined for processing or the food manufacturing industry.

The Dutch committee’s report has been handed to to Minister Bruno Bruins of the VWS and Minister Carola Schouten of the LNV. It contains a number of conclusions and recommendations to prevent future scandals.

The report says that food safety receives insufficient attention from companies in the egg chain. The quality systems in the sector offers insufficient guarantee for food safety. And it says it is insufficient to identify risks for food safety.

The Sorgdrager report says the NVWA did not adequately respond to signs of the use of fipronil it received in November 2016 and January 2017 – before the scandal broke. The commission says that this resulted in the violation of biocide legislation. The commission also concludes that the NVWA was insufficiently prepared for incidents and crises and that there was a lack of clear communication.

It says the VWS and LNV underestimated the impact of the fipronil incident. The House of Representatives – one of the houses of the Dutch parliament – was incompletely informed in August 2017 and a distorted picture of the situation was outlined, it says.

The Sorgdrager Committee recommends that in future companies in the egg chain must ensure a credible system of self-regulation in which food safety becomes a top priority. Commercial interests must be subordinate to the importance of food safety. The sector must also pay more attention to fraud and knowledge must be given a central place within the sector. 

It says the NVWA must guarantee that food safety within the organisation is given the highest priority and is not weighed against other values ​​and interests. 

It says that the ministries of Health, Welfare and Sport and LNV should take their responsibility for the entire food safety system and make policy that benefits self-regulation in the egg sector. They must also enable the regulator to make food safety a priority in the enforcement policy.

The Independent Research Committee on Fipronil in Eggs, chaired by Winnie Sorgdrager, was established on October 17, 2017. Research was conducted into two main questions:  How did the fipronil incident occur and how was it handled? Is food safety (in the egg sector) sufficiently guaranteed?

It believed that 3.5 million birds were culled in the Netherlands as a result of last year’s contamination. The financial cost has been estimated at €100 million.