Brussels spokeswoman says situation is evolving as two men remain arrested following raids in Belgium and the Netherlands
Millions of eggs and egg-based products have been pulled from supermarket shelves since tests revealed a high level of fipronil in eggs. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
Europe’s latest food scandal has widened after the European commissionannounced that a total of 15 EU states, plus Switzerland and Hong Kong, are now known to have received egg products contaminated by an insecticide harmful to human health.
A spokeswoman in Brussels said the situation was “evolving by the day”, as criminal investigators continued to hold two men arrested on Thursday for fraud following a series of raids in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The EU countries known to be affected by the scandal are Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Britain, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Denmark. Products in British supermarkets were removed on Thursday after it was discovered that the initial Food Standards Agency claim that 21,000 contaminated eggs had hit the UK was a major underestimate. The FSA now says the figure is more like 700,000.
Following the arrests of the two directors of a Dutch firm, Chickfriend, which is believed to have supplied the banned anti-lice agent to farmers, a third man, whose home was raided by investigators, spoke to Dutch media on Friday to insist upon his innocence.
Nick Hermens, 28, said he had cut links in February 2016 with the owners of the company implicated in the scandal, due to his concerns about the legality of their business, although his claims could not be verified.
A Belgian company, Poultry-Vision, based in Antwerp, has already admitted providing the insecticide – called fipronil – to Chickfriend through a source in Romania. It is a common ingredient in veterinary products for getting rid of fleas, lice and ticks, but can cause abnormalities of the thyroid and the kidneys, and potentially seizures and death, if consumed by humans. It is not permitted for use around animals destined for consumption.
The Dutch public prosecutor’s office said its investigation was focusing on “the Dutch company which allegedly applied the fipronil and the alleged Belgian supplier, and a company from the Netherlands suspected of collaborating with the Belgian supplier”.
About 140 investigators across Belgium and the Netherlands are working on the case. Eleven locations were searched on Thursday in Belgium. Six locations, including the homes of the suspects, were raided in the Netherlands. “Valuable goods such as cars, bank assets and real estate were seized, as crime can not pay,” a statement read.
Since late July, millions of eggs have been pulled from the shelves of supermarkets across Europe, ranging from Waitrose to Lidl, in what has been the latest in a long line of food scares highlighting the vulnerability of the human food chain to modern farming and the continued gaps in its supervision.
At various points over the last three weeks, national authorities have insisted that the risk to human health is not high and that the crisis is under control. Yet, as the scandal has widened to more and more countries, that reassuring line has been thrown into doubt by updates and clarifications from the very same authorities. “Every single actor has committed serious mistakes,” said Daniel Sarmadi of Foodwatch in Germany.
It emerged this week, courtesy of an angry and defensive Belgian agriculture minister, that as far back as November the Dutch authorities received a tipoff that fipronil was being used illegally in farms in the Netherlands. The information wasn’t passed on to other countries despite the highly interlinked agricultural sectors. The Netherlands says the oversight was because they had launched a fraud investigation and hadn’t considered the health risks.
The Belgians, meanwhile, knew on 2 June this year, entirely by good fortune, that there had been contamination but did not notify the European commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) – designed to allow food safety agencies to coordinate – until 24 July.
When the scale of the contamination started to become known, and 180 farms in the Netherlands were forced to shut down, the Belgian food authorities then insisted their citizens didn’t need to worry as dangerously contaminated eggs hadn’t come on to their market – only to realise a few days later that they had.
The European commission’s systems, meanwhile, had also been alerted to the fraud claims on 6 July, but their IT system designed to aid cooperation on criminal cases is not coordinated with the RASFF, and so they did nothing until three weeks later. Brussels has been left calling for an end to the bickering between member states, and arranging an extraordinary meeting of leaders on 26 September.
Yet, perhaps for consumers, the most concerning detail to emerge has been the ease with which two men – Martin van de Braak, 31, and Mathijs IJzerman, 24, now in custody – were seemingly able to avoid scrutiny after coming into the business last year with a “miracle cure” for lice infestation in chickens.
It has emerged that the men first offered the treatment to customers – sold as a souped-up version of a known herbal compound, called Dega 16 – at an intensive farming convention in March last year. They had promised the substance would work quickly and could be blown through gas-powered cannon to disinfect all corners of their customers’ farms. The products on the market could keep the lice away for three months. Their disinfectant did the job for eight months and even had a nice minty smell.
At a later fair, it has been reported that breeders asked the men about their secret recipe, only to be told it was indeed secret. It doesn’t appear any further questions were asked by the clients. There has been no trial, or conviction.
Among the diplomatic rifts and clearing of shelves, in Germany, where the average person eats five eggs a week, there has been anxiety, anger – and also perhaps a reappraisal.
More than 10m tainted eggs have been imported to Germany. Some consumers have taken to using a government-created app to interpret an egg’s serial number, to work out its origins. Edde Lorch, 29, an IT consultant in Berlin, said she had certainly considered using it. “But then I suddenly realised how absurd it is to be buying eggs that come from so far away,” she said. “I went to my local market and bought a box of eggs from a farmer from just outside Berlin instead. He looked me in the eye and assured me they were not infected.”