Fipronil: a shock to the system

Date: Sep 28, 2017

Originally published in EU Food Law 


In the wake of the fipronil egg scandal, EU member states have agreed this month to establish a network of food safety officers to ensure that information flows as fast and efficiently as possible. Katia Merten-Lentz, of international law firm Keller & Heckman, looks back at how the fipronil scandal unfolded.

Since the discovery of the fraud in July 2017, 24 EU Member States have been affected by eggs and egg products contaminated by the insecticide fipronil, including Germany, the UK and France. Contaminated egg products were also exported out of the EU as far as Brazil and the US.

Fipronil, a broad-spectrum insecticide authorised for use in the EU as a biocide and in veterinary medicines against insects, is not approved for use on food-producing animals.

Despite this, Chickfriend, a Dutch poultry breeder specialised in the eradication of red lice, used fipronil in its product. The company purchased the disinfectant in the north of Belgium from Poultry-Vision.

Fipronil in eggs was discovered by chance by a Belgium private laboratory as part of pesticide multi-residue research requested by a client. Consequently, Belgium was the first country to inform the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

Following this notification, large amount of eggs and egg products were withdrawn from the market in a number of EU member states.

Germany was heavily affected by the scandal. According to Christian Meyer, the Minister of Agriculture in the German state of Lower Saxony, over 28 million eggs were infected that would otherwise have been delivered throughout Germany.

The UK got off comparatively lightly, with the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) indicating that about 700,000 of the contaminated eggs had entered its borders.

A low health risk

Fipronil is considered as “moderately toxic” for humans by the World Health Organization (WHO) and can be unsafe for kidneys and the thyroid gland.

In general, national authorities found that the risk for health was very low regarding the levels of fipronil found in contaminated eggs in relation to consumption habits.

But, contrary to the “horsegate” scandal, which was a strict labelling fraud, the health risk subsists in this case. In fact, it is worth noting that the health risk assessment differs from Member State to another, with some not adopting as radical measures as others to tackle the scandal.

Impact on trade

The economic impact will be substantial, especially for countries that export eggs on a large scale and that are affected by the fraud.

Dutch poultry farmers have been hit heavily, as the Netherlands is one of the largest eggs’ exporters in the EU.

The scandal is likely to cause disruptions in supply in countries that are not as self-sufficient in eggs and egg products.

Also, some companies, including British Lion Egg Processors, have asked food manufacturers to reconsider their egg sourcing, which may lead to additional trade consequences.

Learning from mistakes

The EU is used to being shaken by crises but it has also been able to draw lessons from them. The storm caused by the horsemeat scandal led to the reinforcement of traceability rules .

The eggs scandal shows that the EU alert system is now more effective, as it allows for more precise and rapid withdrawals.

However, some MEPs have questioned the effectiveness of the system, even going so far as to call for a thorough examination of the system, because Dutch authorities were warned in November 2016 about fipronil use on chicken farms, but the alert system only kicked into gear in July.

It is, therefore, good to see that Member States have now agreed to establish a network of food safety officers, one per country, to ensure information flows as fast and efficiently as possible.