Vytenis Andriukaitis said the situation continues to evolve during a plenary debate.
“In November 2016 the Dutch food authority was informed of the illegal use of fipronil in poultry but since there were no analytical results indicating the presence of fipronil in eggs or chicken meat and no danger for public health the source of the problem was not established,” he said.
“Tests on samples kept from September 2016 revealing the presence of fipronil were done only recently and are under investigation of prosecutors from Germany, Netherlands and Belgium to check these historical samples to answer what was known, when and by whom.
“On 2 June 2017 following self-controls by Belgian food business operator the Belgian authorities were notified of the presence of fipronil in eggs and started initiating an investigation to understand the source of the problem. As a consequence of this investigation, on 6 July the Belgian authorities indicated a request for information to the Netherlands in the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system.
“Once the Belgian authorities had identified the source of fipronil in eggs and the possible extent of the problem they notified the RASFF system on 20 July 2017. Therefore the Commission was only informed on 20 July. This incident highlights the fact we need to strengthen the way the European Union networks dealing with food safety and food fraud are used.”
Andriukaitis added it was the result of a criminal act and was not a health risk issue.
“It appals me that the criminal actions of a few could jeopardise the integrity and reputation of our entire food chain. Those criminals must be investigated and punished.”
Open market complexity
The fipronil crisis has highlighted the pitfalls of open markets, according to BEUC.
“We have repeatedly said that open markets, trade, can be of benefit for consumers: a downward pressure on prices, more choice and access to innovation,” said The European Consumer Organisation.
“But these benefits are being overshadowed by the sheer complexity of ensuring that consumer safety is not imperilled when food and consumer products cross multiple borders or are composed of components and ingredients from all five continents.”
BEUC said the crisis has made it clear that authorities lack the resources to check if food is safe and complies with standards.
“Even if one can trust their national authority because it has sufficient funding and does a good job, consumers are still at the mercy of how good foreign public watchdogs – in other EU countries but also beyond – do their jobs. Your food is only as safe as the weakest link in the chain. For whatever reason, information about fipronil in eggs did exist long before the Belgians went public in July.”
The insecticide was found in Dutch and Belgian farms and 26 Member States and 23 other countries have been impacted.
Fact-finding trips to the most affected countries are planned for early October and a ministerial meeting is on 26 September.
EU legislation sets the maximum residue level (MRL) at 0.005 mg/kg for eggs.
The European Commission proposed 0.72 mg/kg as the limit from which eggs contaminated with fipronil could present an acute health risk but levels up to 1.2 mg/kg have been detected.
EU official control labs have until 15 September to register to take part in a proficiency test to determine fipronil in eggs organised by the Joint Research Centre (JRC).
MEPS have their say
Speaking in the debate, Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp called for a full ban on the use of fipronil.
“The fipronil affair has once again shown that there is something wrong with industrial-scale animal keeping in Europe,” said Hazekamp, who is a member of the GUE/NGL party.
“Over the past few weeks, 2.5 million chickens have become victims of our sick system. Fipronil is not only harmful to humans and chickens, but also to bees and other pollinating insects.
“The Commissioner said…that a ban on fipronil would not be possible because that would spell ‘disaster’ for farmers. Does the Commissioner really believe that a ban on fipronil is a greater disaster than the disaster which we have now?”
Kateřina Konečná, GUE/NGL MEP, spoke about alleged prior knowledge by the authorities.
“The Belgian authorities had suspicions about eggs contaminated with fipronil since the beginning of June but only raised the alarm for the first time on the 20 July. Is this how we want cooperation and consumer protection to work in the EU?,” she said.
“Perhaps the spokesperson for the Belgian Government is right and the decision not to disclose the suspicion was in line with European regulations. If so, the regulations must change.
“However I consider unacceptable the decision of the Belgian government, motivated by a desire to protect businesses at the cost of the health of European citizens. This is absolutely scandalous and it must not be allowed to repeat.”
Michèle Rivasi, a French MEP and of the Greens/European Free Alliance, said the crisis shows the extent of failures in the national and European food safety control systems.
“No one realized the presence of fipronil in the eggs, because no one measured it. It took a company to take the initiative to warn the Belgian authorities to start detecting fraud. Two months elapsed before Member States were alerted and almost 15 days to disseminate information within [RASFF].
“Meanwhile, we continued eating eggs, waffles, Viennese pastries contaminated with fipronil. Most of the time, they are very small doses, but they added to the doses already present in houses.”