Pesticide Fipronil in Egg Scandal Shocks Europeans

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CC BY 2.0. frankleleon

One day there were eggs for sale. The next day there were not. News reports show heavy equipment dumping eggs by the thousands into waste truck bins full of slimy, yellowish soup destined never to be consumed by man nor beast.

Millions of eggs have been recalled in Germany and the Netherlands and are blocked from sale in Belgium after release of a notification of the insecticide fipronil (between 0.0031 and 1.2 mg/kg - ppm) in eggs on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) of the European Commission.

Critics immediately protested the waste. The eggs were contaminated, but could still be eaten in normal quantities by adults without a real risk. The German agency for risk assessment issued advice that a child of 16 kg (35 pounds) could exceed the 'safe dose' by eating two eggs at the highest contamination levels found. But it is worth noting that the safe dose is set with a safety factor of 100, so even in this worst case, the probability of actual harm is as good as nonexistent.

Was destroying the eggs an over-reaction? Or in the face of customer fears, were grocers doing what was necessary to protect their reputation and react decisively in the interest of the consumer?

So how did it come to this? And what does it mean for the farmers?

I am not going to name companies and products here. The objective is not to point fingers, but to highlight the importance of having knowledgeable chemical specialists involved in any decisions about formulation and use of chemical products, especially in the food and consumer exposure sectors.

With that caveat, here is the story at this point in the investigation. Chicken farmers contracted with a locally based company for professional cleaning of their farm equipment. The cleaning company used a product intended to be "natural," based on menthol and eucalyptus, for controlling red mites. The natural product is approved for this use and safe for human consumption even in the case of unintentional contamination of food products.

But apparently the "natural" product was not succeeding at controlling the mites. Someone decided the product needed a boost -- and here it seems unclear whether the manufacturer of the natural cleaning product added some fipronil or whether the professional cleaning company mixed up a new concoction using the natural mite control product with a fipronil booster.

Europe has a powerful law on the use of biocides. It requires that every biocide be registered and the legal uses of the product be specifically approved under the law and communicated with every sale of the product. Fipronil is registered for legal use to treat fleas, ticks and lice -- but it is banned from use to treat farm animals. The law is very clear on this, pointing out that for fipronil "Only professional use indoors by application in locations normally inaccessible after application to man and domestic animals has been addressed in the Union level risk assessment." The indoor application is intended to protect bees, also suspected of being harmed by this pesticide.

It is hard to imagine what went wrong that led to this fiasco. Was the cleaning product intentionally adulterated in violation of the law? Is it possible that all the weighty regulations failed to make clear the hazards when someone unwittingly played at pesticide chemistry?

The consequences, regardless of how we got here, are devastating. The pesticide fipronil accumulates in the fat of the chickens, so Dutch farmers caught up in the scandal now face the prospect of losing all of their laying stock, and the chickens involved face an even more terrible fate.

As food suppliers ramp up to "certify" their eggs as fipronil-free, and agencies double down on food safety testing, they will turn to experts in certification laboratories to rebuild confidence in the food supply chain.

We spoke with someone in the business and learned that a test for detecting fipronil costs less than 100 euros ($115) per sample, using the GC-MS method. (GC-MS stands for "gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy." The technique first separates various chemicals and then analyzes them; because it creates a sort of "chemical fingerprint" the method is considered very specific, identifying the presence or absence of precise chemicals even at very low limits.)

The question of how many samples to test, and how often to repeat tests, is more difficult. Testing costs add to the consumer food prices as well, although the cost per test quoted suggests that a level of food safety scanning that remains cost effective can be achieved.

It certainly gives one something to think about over a bowl of Bircher muesli for breakfast, while waiting for the eggs to return to the market.