Ex­perts point fin­ger at Dutch over­sight agency in egg scan­dal

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE - Prob­lem started with cut­backs Not a food watch­dog

Years of cuts at the Dutch food watch­dog agency and a ten­dency among politi­cians to put eco­nom­ics ahead of public safety may be to blame for the EU’s tainted-egg scan­dal that has spread as far as Hong Kong. Mil­lions of eggs have been pulled from su­per­mar­ket shelves across Europe and dozens of poul­try farms have closed since it emerged on Au­gust 1 that eggs con­tam­i­nated with fipronil, which can harm hu­man health, were be­ing ex­ported and sold.

Fipronil is widely used to rid house­hold pets such as dogs and cats of fleas, but is banned by the Euro­pean Union from treat­ing an­i­mals des­tined for hu­man con­sump­tion, in­clud­ing chick­ens. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says fipronil is “mod­er­ately haz­ardous” in large quan­ti­ties, with po­ten­tial dan­ger to peo­ple’s kid­neys, liver and thy­roid glands.

Food safety au­thor­i­ties in The Nether­lands-where farm­ers are at the epi­cen­ter of the row-this week ad­mit­ted they re­ceived an anony­mous tip-off last Novem­ber about the use of fipronil in chicken pens but re­futed al­le­ga­tions of negligence. “It’s mind-blow­ing that there was no con­nec­tion made then, be­tween the tip-off and the fact that fipronil may have con­tam­i­nated both the chick­ens and the eggs,” Dutch in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and food writer Mar­cel van Sil­fhout said.

Had the NVWA, the Dutch food and goods watch­dog, acted at that point, the lat­est trou­ble to hit the ex­port­de­pen­dent Dutch food in­dus­try could have largely been avoided, said Van Sil­fhout, who penned a crit­i­cal book about food safety and the NVWA in 2014. Martin van den Berg, a pro­fes­sor and se­nior tox­i­col­o­gist at Utrecht Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Risk As­sess­ment Sciences, added: “If there were in­ves­ti­ga­tors who were ex­perts in this area and un­der­stood the im­pact of fipronil, maybe there would have been a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion.”

But af­ter con­sul­ta­tions fol­low­ing the tip-off, the NVWA de­cided “there was no rea­son to think that fipronil would en­ter ei­ther eggs or chick­ens,” two Dutch min­is­ters said in a let­ter to par­lia­ment on Thurs­day. Said van Sil­fhout: “I can’t un­der­stand why the alarm bells didn’t go off when a poi­sonous sub­stance has been found in a chicken pen.”

Much of the cur­rent prob­lem can be traced back to a grow­ing loss of ex­per­tise; the NVWA and its pre­de­ces­sors have faced a se­ries of cut­backs and trims since 2003, ex­perts say. The heav­ily-bur­dened agency-which deals with food se­cu­rity but also gen­eral safety of goods-saw its per­ma­nent staff shrink from 3,700 full-time jobs in 2003 to 2,200 over the next decade, ac­cord­ing to the Dutch Chris­tian-based daily Trouw.

Though the num­ber is now back up slightly to about 2,600, many em­ploy­ees are not ex­perts in their fields, ac­cord­ing to Van Sil­fhout. “There is no doubt that the prob­lem started with the cut­backs since 2003,” he said. Since then, a se­ries of food scan­dals to hit The Nether­lands, in­clud­ing the out­break of Q fever in 2007 which killed dozens of peo­ple, firmly laid the blame on the NVWA.

Al­though a 2013 scan­dal over horse meat-when it was dis­cov­ered that a Dutch com­pany was pass­ing off horse meat as beef to be used in burg­ers and other meat prod­ucts across Europe-had no health im­pli­ca­tions, the NVWA was crit­i­cized for not be­ing strin­gent enough in its over­sight.

In 2003, the NVWA was moved from un­der the Dutch health min­istry to agri­cul­ture which then fell un­der the eco­nomic af­fairs min­istry. Over the years, the farm­ing in­dus­try started to largely “reg­u­late it­self and agrarian mo­tives got the pri­or­ity,” Van Sil­fhout wrote in his 2014 book “De­boned-how safe is our food still?”“A cul­ture of soft en­force­ment took hold ... in­stead of clear in­de­pen­dent in­spec­tions,” Van Sil­fhout wrote.

Pi­eter van Vol­len­hoven, Princess Mar­griet’s hus­band and a former Dutch Safety Board chair­man, agreed. “At (farm­ing) com­pa­nies, eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions quickly took the lead,” he told the Dutch daily Al­ge­meen Dag­blad in a re­cent in­ter­view. “The NVWA must stand up for public in­ter­est, for food se­cu­rity. Alas, the agency in re­al­ity is not a food watch­dog, but an ex­ten­sion of eco­nomic pol­icy,” Van Vol­len­hoven said.

Dutch Health Min­is­ter Edith Schip­pers this week ad­mit­ted that the govern­ment had made “er­rors” but de­nied any cover-up. “Once the cri­sis is be­hind us, we will an­a­lyze the roles of each of the play­ers,” Schip­pers said, “and we will draw our con­clu­sions”.—AFP

NAMUR: A pic­ture taken in a the poul­try farm in Hes­baye re­gion near Namur shows eggs be­ing packed. —AFP

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