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Europe’s egg industry was reeling due to the discovery of fipronil-contaminated eggs. Based on preliminary investigations, it appears possible that a Dutch company colluded with a Belgian supplier, mixing fipronil with a cleaning and sanitizing solution, then applying it on or near egg-laying hens to treat lice and ticks.

Eggs

The issue is that this insecticide, fipronil, is not approved for this purpose.1 Millions of eggs,2 egg products and products containing these eggs have been recalled.3 According to one report potentially 28.1 to 35 million contaminated eggs could have been shipped to the state of Lower Saxony in Germany.4 

Recalls in Action

On July 20, the Belgian authorities reported fipronil contamination in eggs. Then, a few days later, contaminated eggs were also found in The Netherlands. A recall took place, resulting in millions of eggs being withdrawn from the market and hundreds of operations being closed by the authorities. It transpired that contaminated eggs had been distributed to Germany, the United Kingdom, Luxemburg, France, Sweden, Switzerland,5 Romania and even to Hong Kong. Additionally, it now appears these contaminated eggs were also distributed to Austria, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Hungary and Denmark.6 Of its 28 Member States, in the EU only Lithuania and Croatia have not reported finding fipronil contaminated eggs; a total of 49 countries reported contamination.7 This event resulted in almost 600 notifications to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed products (RASFF). 

Fortunately, in Europe individual eggs are required to be coded, so recall efforts can be made down to the individual egg. Unfortunately, innocent farmers and suppliers are likely to face financial ruin as people will avoid eggs from the Netherlands and Belgium even if specific companies are not involved in the scandal. As of August 28 the damage was estimated at 33 million euros, as 258 companies could not sell any chicken or eggs during this recall period.8

Wider Contamination Concern

There is also the issue of whether the meat from these hens is also contaminated.9 So far, all the testing of chicken meat has indicted that no contaminated product has reached the public.

Unfortunately, this won’t stop the public avoiding other poultry products from the areas under investigation. Retailers and governments not in receipt of any of the recalled eggs are announcing this publicly. For example, the UK government has publicly announced that 85% of eggs are local and that the 700,000 eggs imported is a very small fraction, 0.007%, of those consumed every year in the UK. However, this 700,000 is far larger than the 21,000 originally reported to have been received.

International Action

Some countries are taking action against eggs and egg farms, and recalls are happening even in countries that haven’t received contaminated eggs from Europe. In the Republic of Korea, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs investigated the practices of their egg industry and found one farm using fipronil, and its eggs were contaminated. This resulted in major recalls of eggs in the Republic. Another farm’s eggs had more than the recommended amount of another insecticide, bifenthrin.

This investigation has prompted the Korean government to investigate every egg farm from the largest to the smallest.10 After investigating 245 of 1,239 egg farms the government has found four with contaminated eggs.11 During this investigation, three major retail chains have stopped distributing eggs until the investigation is completed. The government has decided to destroy all the contaminated eggs, regardless of the level of contamination. This demonstrates neatly that one area or country affected can become a global problem that many governments or agencies will investigate.

In Europe, the situation continues to evolve, however, a ministerial meeting was held on September 26 and fact finding trips to all the Union’s affected countries are underway and will conclude in early October.

A Question of Timing

Currently, the news reports arguments between government agencies in Europe, as there are questions as to when Belgian officials actually knew about the contamination and why it took so long for them to notify the other government authorities about it.12 

It was reported that in November 2016 Dutch authorities received a tip off about insecticide usage, but it was investigated as a food fraud instead of a health hazard. The Belgian authorities knew of the contamination on June 2, 2017, but didn’t alert the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) until 22 days later. Although the food fraud claim was received by the European Commission on July 6, since the food fraud system is not coordinated with the rapid alert system nothing was done for almost three weeks.13 In September, the European Commission will hold a crisis meeting to discuss what happened and how to prevent this from happening again.

EU Maximum Residue Limits

Fipronil is a common insecticide for treatment against fleas, mites, ticks, ants, cockroaches, locusts and other similar insects. It works by disrupting an insect’s central nervous system. In many countries it is used to fight tick and flea infestations in dogs and cats. For eggs, European legislation sets the maximum residue level (MRL) for fipronil in Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 at 0.005 mg/kg. The regulation also sets MRLs for a range of food products for such as onions and shallots at 0.02 mg/kg, and broccoli, cauliflower, leeks and Brussels sprouts at 0.01 mg/kg.

Acceptable Daily Intake

In the 2006 conclusion report for this insecticide, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that the Acceptable Daily Intake level is 0.0002 mg/kg Body-weight/day.14 On July 16, 2013 the EU voted to ban the use of fipronil on corn and sunflowers which took effect at the end of that year as this insecticide was one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among honey bees.15 

The real issue is that fipronil is not approved in Europe for use on animals destined for human consumption. However, the EU insists that there is no threat to humans while the World Health Organization states that in large quantities it can be harmful to humans’ kidneys, liver and thyroid glands.

It was determined that when animals consumed forage that was treated with fipronil that the insecticide accumulates in the fat, liver, muscles and meats of food animals. Hence, these MRLs exist in the EU.

SGS Testing Services

SGS can perform testing for fipronil in eggs and poultry meats. Fipronil can be tested for by using either gas chromatography-mass spectrometry or liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry methodologies. The Institut Fresenius food laboratory in Berlin, Germany is just one of the SGS labs that can perform this pesticide testing, using the DIN EN 15662 method, and has a determination limit of 0.003 mg/kg in eggs and egg products. The EU has established a limit of non-detection of 0.005 mg/kg for egg and egg products. Pesticide regulation with regard to the usage of and levels of fipronil that are allowed on food products are very complicated and differ between countries and products. At SGS, we recommend consulting an expert or regulation database before using a pesticide and before shipping a product that has been exposed to a pesticide. For the latest pesticide regulatory information please consult SGS Digicomply.

Many pesticides, such as fipronil, have beneficial uses. However, as with any chemical, when used improperly or in a manner not approved by a regulatory agency, they can cause harm. This is the primary issue in this matter.

For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety.

For more information, please contact:

Jim Cook
Global Food Inspection Technical Manager
t: +1 973-461-1493

References:

1 Fipronil in Eggs Dutch Police Arrest Two Suspects
2 Dutch Egg Recal for Insecticide Contamination Spans The Globe
3 Update On Fipronil In Eggs 10 August 2017
4 Over 28 mln Contaminated Eggs Enter Germany via Netherlands
5 Policy/Netherlands-and-Belgium Face Off in Fipronil Spat
6 Dutch Arrests Made as Fipronil Egg Scare Spreads to 17 Markets?
7 Fipronil Contaminated Eggs Found 45 Countries
8 Claim Organization Help Farmers Hit Poison Egg Scandal
9 Chicken Meat Exported Africa Belgium Tested Insecticide Fipronil
10 Korean Retailers Stop Egg Sales After Fripronil Found in Some Eggs
11 S. Korea to Destroy Insecticide Tainted Eggs After Inspection
12 Eggs Fipronil Contamination Pesticide European Union Food Safety Brussels
13 With Egg on their Faces European Officials Confront the Rolling Contaminated Egg Scandal
14 Conclusion Regarding the Peer Review of the Pesticide Risk Assessment of the Active Substance
15 Pesticides and Bees