UPDATE

Belgium aware of fipronil in June

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Belgian authorities were aware that eggs destined to enter the human food chain were contaminated with insecticide fipronil in June, a month before the news broke and a mass recall was initiated across a number of European markets.

The country’s food safety regulator, the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC), was alerted to the contamination issue last month when it launched an investigation into how fipronil entered the human food chain in Belgium and notified the country’s prosecutor over a possible fraud link. A spokesperson confirmed that the information was not shared due to the judicial investigation examining “illegal trafficking”. Belgian law prohibits comment on judicial investigations.

The FASFC stressed that its tests concluded fipronil levels “significantly lower” than agreed EU limits had been found in eggs produced at Belgian farms. The FASFC, therefore, did not raise its concerns over the contaminant by feeding this information into the European Union’s rapid alert system for food and feed (RASFF) until last week.

In a statement released over the weekend, FASFC stressed that it has taken the precautions of blocking eggs from producers feared to be caught up in the scare and initiating a customer-facing recall to remove the affected eggs from the market.

This contrasts with testing in neighbouring Holland, where the Netherlands Food and Consumer Products Safety Authority (NVWA) has detected fipronil content so high in some eggs that it said consumption poses an “acute danger to public health”. The Netherlands has also launched a criminal investigation.

Fipronil is an insecticide used to manage fleas and ticks. Its use is banned in animals destined to enter the human food chain. The World Health Organization rates fipronil as “moderately toxic”. When consumed by humans in large quantities it can cause kidney, liver or thyroid damage.

Recall widens

Last week, Dutch eggs were pulled from the shelves in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

German authorities now say “at least” 10m contaminated eggs have been imported into the country, with some of these released to the market.

Germany’s federal food safety authorities are overseeing the recall of any contaminated eggs. Today, it emerged that this has been extended to processed food products, such as mayonnaise, which were processed using affected eggs.

The EU has also notified food safety authorities in France, Switzerland, Sweden and the UK that contaminated eggs may have been imported as a “precautionary measure”. In Switzerland, Aldi has initiated a recall of some eggs imported from the Netherlands.

Responding, the UK's Food Standards Agency said: "Following concerns raised in the Netherlands about a substance called fipronil which has been used inappropriately in cleaning products on chicken farms, we have identified that a very small number of eggs have been distributed to the UK from the farms affected. Fipronil is not authorised for use as a veterinary medicine or pesticide around food producing animals."

Contaminated Dutch eggs were also found in Hong Kong, it emerged today.

Call for support

Dutch farming group LTO Nederland said that the incident has been “particularly harmful” to consumer confidence in the safety of Dutch eggs. Eric Hubers, chairman of the LTO livestock division, said it was a “disaster for the sector”.

"We work hard to regain consumer confidence. Infected eggs are destroyed, stables are cleaned, laying hens are stripped of fipronil and the final check is strict. There is no egg to the consumer that does not meet the requirements,” he emphasised.

Hubers said that the Dutch government should consider financial support measures for the sector. “When bird flu broke out in 2003, poultry holders could count on the government…. This disaster is of a similar size,” he stressed.

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