Fears in EU over tainted eggs sur­pass risk, ex­perts say

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - MIKE CORDER

AM­S­TER­DAM — Ex­perts say the risk of get­ting sick from eat­ing an egg tainted with in­sec­ti­cide is low. But that hasn’t stopped stores in Ger­many and the Nether­lands from strip­ping them from su­per­mar­ket shelves, or pre­vented other Euro­pean food safety agen­cies from is­su­ing warn­ings.

The story about the il­le­gal use of the in­sec­ti­cide fipronil in spray to rid hens of ticks, fleas and lice has gained trac­tion across Europe. Fears about the safety of an ev­ery­day food sta­ple, along with some lessthan-op­ti­mal pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, have com­bined to cast a shadow of sus­pi­cion over the hum­ble egg.

Am­s­ter­dam shop­per Karla Spreek­meester said Fri­day that she only buys eggs from stores sell­ing or­ganic food prod­ucts.

“I take it se­ri­ously,” she said of the Dutch warn­ing. “I’m not scared that I’ll col­lapse if I eat the wrong egg, but if you can pre­vent some­thing …”

Fipronil is com­monly used by vet­eri­nar­i­ans to treat fleas and ticks in pets, but it is banned by the Euro­pean Union for treat­ing an­i­mals like chick­ens that are part of the human food chain.

The EU said con­tam­i­nated eggs have been found at pro­duc­ers in Bel­gium, France, Ger­many and the Nether­lands. It’s be­lieved the fipronil got into the food chain when it was il­le­gally added to a prod­uct used to spray poul­try.

The ef­fect for egg pro­duc­ers has been stag­ger­ing.

Since July 20, Dutch farm­ers have de­stroyed mil­lions of un­sellable eggs and culled about 1 mil­lion hens, said Hen­nie de Haan of the Dutch union of poul­try farm­ers.

No­body has been re­ported to have fallen ill as a re­sult of eat­ing the tainted eggs.

“Peo­ple are very sus­cep-

● tible to neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion,” said Jan-Willem van Prooi­jen, a so­cial psy­chol­o­gist at the Vrije Univer­siteit Am­s­ter­dam. “Peo­ple are very at­tuned to per­ceive and re­spond emo­tion­ally to neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion such as po­ten­tial health haz­ards or other threat­en­ing stim­uli.”

In re­cent days, Dutch au­thor­i­ties blocked sales from about 180 farms treated by a com­pany sus­pected of il­lic­itly us­ing fipronil.

Al­most all lab tests show that only very low lev­els of fipronil — seven to 10 times lower than the max­i­mum per­mit­ted — have been de­tected in eggs from the treated chick­ens, although one test in Bel­gium was above the Euro­pean limit. Poi­son­ing by small doses has few ef­fects and re­quires lit­tle treat­ment. Heavy and pro­longed ex­po­sure can dam­age the kid­neys and liver or cause seizures.

Dutch au­thor­i­ties warned that eggs from only one farm should not be eaten and said chil­dren should not eat eggs from dozens of other farms.

That sent con­sumers to their re­frig­er­a­tors to check the small codes printed in

red ink on the shells of eggs to see if they are from one of the af­fected farms. Stores have pulled eggs from con­tam­i­nated farms off their shelves.

The EU said Fri­day that tainted eggs have been found so far in 15 EU coun­tries, plus Switzer­land and Hong Kong.

In Ger­many, some su­per­mar­kets stopped sell­ing all Dutch eggs re­gard­less of whether they came from af­fected farms. Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties is­sued a warn­ing about a small num­ber of ready-made sal­ads, sand­wiches and spreads con­tain­ing con­tam­i­nated eggs.

The pre­cau­tions came de­spite food safety ex­perts be­ing nearly unan­i­mous in their opinion that the health risk from eat­ing fipronil-tainted eggs is very low.

“Even when taken de­lib­er­ately at 10,000 times the max­i­mum amount likely to be con­sumed from con­tam­i­nated eggs, the in­di­vid­u­als sur­vived with no long-term harm,” Alan Boobis, pro­fes­sor of bio­chem­i­cal phar­ma­col­ogy at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, said in a state­ment.

“Based on the ex­tent of con­tam­i­na­tion found and the num­ber of such eggs that have reached the U.K. mar­ket, there is no rea­son for con­sumers to be con­cerned,” he added.

So why are con­sumers con­cerned?

“Bad is stronger than good,” said Van Prooi­jen, cit­ing a time-hon­ored maxim among psy­chol­o­gists. “And that means human be­ings pay more at­ten­tion to neg­a­tive things than pos­i­tive things, be­cause neg­a­tive things can harm you.”

Some farm­ers say the Nether­lands’ food safety watch­dog last week fanned such fears.

The act­ing in­spec­tor-gen­eral of the Nether­lands Food and Con­sumer Prod­uct Safety Au­thor­ity, Freek van Zo­eren, said on a Dutch TV news show that, “if some­body says ‘I can live with­out eggs un­til Sun­day,’ I’d ad­vise that.”

Dutch Health Min­is­ter Edith Schip­pers ac­knowl­edged on an­other show Thurs­day night that the state­ment was ill-judged.

Van Zo­eren “made com­ments that, in­deed, did not in­crease the clar­ity,” Schip­pers said.

Anja Viss­cher, whose 110,000 white hens lay about 100,000 eggs each day, quickly took to Face­book and the In­ter­net to re­as­sure cus­tomers af­ter Van Zo­eren’s com­ment.

“There are com­pa­nies whose eggs are OK, so eat an egg,” was the mes­sage she and

other farm­ers spread. “You want the mar­ket to re­main OK.”

On Thurs­day, au­thor­i­ties ar­rested two men in the Nether­lands who were di­rec­tors of the com­pany in­volved in spray­ing poul­try barns, say­ing they en­dan­gered pub­lic health. Their iden­ti­ties have not been re­leased while a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues.

Farm­ers have said they were un­aware the spray con­tained fipronil and see them­selves as un­wit­ting vic­tims. In the Nether­lands, they also blame the food safety watch­dog for not act­ing fast enough af­ter re­ceiv­ing an anony­mous tip about pos­si­ble fipronil use in Novem­ber 2016.

Some in­dus­try groups say the scan­dal should be a wakeup call.

“Cit­i­zens want some­thing cleaner, bet­ter, and we have been work­ing on that,” said Philippe Du­vivier, pres­i­dent of FUGEA, a Bel­gian farm­ers’ group work­ing for sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture. “We have to call the whole sec­tor into ques­tion now. Per­haps it’s time to go to a whole other kind of agri­cul­ture.”

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