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Explainer: What's all this about contaminated eggs, and are we at risk here in Ireland?

The EU has urged nations to stop “blaming and shaming” each other over who is responsible.

Millions of eggs have been withdrawn from the market.
Millions of eggs have been withdrawn from the market.
Image: Ye Pingfan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THIS WEEK, A contaminated eggs scandal hit the headlines in Europe.

Millions of eggs and egg-based products have been pulled from the shelves since the beginning of August, and questions have been asked over who knew what, and when.

During the week, governments in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were all arguing over whose fault it was.

The Dutch government has admitted that “errors were made”, the UK’s Food Standards Agency said that 700,000 contaminated eggs had been distributed across Britain, and the EU has organised an emergency meeting to discuss the scandal.

So, just how serious is this contaminated eggs scandal? And are we at risk here in Ireland?

Eggs-plain it to me

It was found that a large number of eggs being sold in European markets contained an insecticide called fipronil.

Fipronil is commonly used to get rid of fleas, lice and ticks from animals but is banned by the European Union from use in the food industry.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that when eaten in large quantities it can harm people’s kidneys, liver and thyroid glands.

EU rules say eggs with a level of fipronil above 0.005 mg per kg must be withdrawn from sale even though there is no significant health risk.

Fipronil levels above 0.72 mg per kg are a possible “acute” health risk and should not be eaten.

It is believed that a company which provides a disinfecting service for poultry farms used this insecticide across 180 farms in the Netherlands.

One by one, European nations began to confirm the presence of contaminated eggs on the market. Throughout, however, authorities were keen to emphasise that the risk to consumers was low.

In the past few days, alone, the UK confirmed that 700,000 fipronil-tainted eggs were on the market, Romania confirmed one tonne of contaminated product had been found and a further 20 tonnes were discovered in Denmark.

The British government said the eggs had not been sold individually, but were in processed foods such as sandwich fillings and salads – some of which will have already been eaten, with the rest now being withdrawn from sale.

“Many of the eggs involved were mixed with other eggs which have not come from affected farms, so fipronil residues will be highly diluted,” said the Food Standards Agency.

The contaminated eggs have mainly come from the Netherlands, followed by Belgium and Germany. Scores of farms in the Netherlands and Belgium have been shut.

Sweden, Switzerland, France and Luxembourg have also now announced that they have found contaminated eggs.

In France’s case, it has been suggested that authorities there were aware of the problem since April.

Scrambling for a solution

The EU has arranged an emergency meeting to discuss the scandal.

“We would like this meeting to happen with some distance to the events and have as many facts established as possible,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told a press conference.

“This is not, let’s be clear, a crisis meeting,” Andreeva said.

The EU’s health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, meanwhile, said that “blaming and shaming” between countries involved in the row will not help anyone.

“But first things first. Our common job and our priority now is to manage the situation, gather information, focus on the analysis and lessons to be learned in view to improve our system and prevent criminal activity,” Andriukaitis said.

Culpability for the presence of fipronil in so many eggs has fallen mainly on the Netherlands, whose government has admitted that “errors had been made”.

“Mistakes are made in any crisis and it was absolutely also the case in this one,” Dutch Health Minister Edith Schippers told viewers on a late night talk show on Thursday on the NPO public broadcaster.

We were well aware of a report of the presence of fipronil in the pens of egg-laying hens in November 2016, but there was no indication at the time that fipronil itself was found in the eggs.

French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert on Wednesday called for “better cooperation in the future” while his Belgian counterpart Denis Ducarme accused the Dutch of not treating the information received in 2016 about fipronil with enough gravity, calling it a “real problem”.

The Dutch government admitted on Thursday that “retrospectively and with hindsight about the presence of fipronil in eggs, measures should have been taken to enforce the law”.

Furthermore, a number of people have also been arrested in the Netherlands in connection with the scandal.

And what about Ireland?

Luckily, a lot of the eggs we buy in Ireland come from Irish farms, so while there had been some egg products recalled in June and July, there is no cause for concern here.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said on Thursday that ”the number of egg or egg products imported is very small. The risk to consumer health is very low.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine told TheJournal.ie that tests for fipronil is part of Ireland’s annual residue testing programme.

There were no positive samples in 2016. All samples tested to date in 2017 have also been negative.

Speaking to RTÉ’s The News at One yesterday, FSAI director of risk management Ray Ellard said a small amount of “shelled boiled eggs” that had been sourced from Northern Ireland by a handful of caterers had been contaminated, as well as small amounts of “liquid pasteurised egg” that were supplied via France to outlets here.

He said that the FSAI had asked the businesses involved to hold on to the products if they have any left.

On the issue of egg-based products, such as mayonnaise, Ellard maintained the risk is “quite small”.

With reporting from AFP - © – AFP, 2017

Read: Thousands of contaminated eggs recalled in the UK – but no threat to Ireland yet

Read: An egg a day helps children grow – science

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