Fipronil was detected in Dutch and Belgian table eggs last year. The use of the insecticide to control pests is not permitted in livestock destined to enter the food chain and the scare prompted a massive egg recall across Europe.
The Netherlands Food and Consumer Safety Authority (NVWA) ultimately took the “precautionary measure” of blocking poultry products from nearly 200 farms.
It later transpired that a Dutch company, Chickfriend, had used fipronil at poultry farms to combat red mite.
The parliamentary probe, headed by the then secretary of state at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Winnie Sorgdrager, stressed that the scandal and the response of the NVWA caused “agitation” in the food industry and “uncertainty” among consumers.
According to European regulations, the primary responsibility for food safety lies with the companies producing and distributing food products.
“These companies have the obligation to actively ensure not to introduce products onto the markets not complying with statutory regulations and therefore not suitable for consumption (self-monitoring obligation). The safeguards implemented by those companies in the egg chain are insufficient,” the commission concluded.
The report found “many farms” fail to adequately assess food safety risks and noted that understanding of regulatory obligations is “too limited”. Most farms are not prepared to deal with a food safety incident, Dutch MPs added.
Moreover, Integrated Chain Management Egg, the voluntary supply chain quality scheme, was found wanting with regard to food safety. These systems rely on certification schemes that fail to ensure minimum standards are met, the report authors warned.
“The inspections performed by certifying authorities mainly have an administrative nature. Company visits are announced in advance, which impairs the effectiveness and credibility of the inspections. It also makes the chance of detecting fraud or misrepresentation small.
“Up to 2018, laying-hen farms, packing stations and supermarkets have been unsuccessful in banning eggs from the trade that are, according to the law, unsuitable for consumption. Fipronil-eggs repeatedly penetrating the shelves of the supermarkets shows that food safety is insufficiently ensured by private parties.”
Authorities ignored warnings
The Dutch food safety authority, NVWA, had received tip-offs that fiprolnil was being used on poultry farms as early as 2016. However, the agency failed to follow its internal procedures meaning that these concerns were investigated as criminal proceedings. A lack of resources meant that the criminal investigation was not launched until April, May and June 2017 due to a “lack of capacity”.
The commission believes that the NVWA should have stepped in sooner. “The commission is of the opinion that at the end of 2016, based on the information available at that time, enforcing actions would have been possible pursuant to the Plant Protection Products and Biocides Act (Wgb). The commission concludes that the NVWA has inadequately realised its duty as inspector in the field of food safety in the phase leading up to a report submitted by the Belgian supervisory authority.”
Turning to the central government, which is responsible for ensuring the proper functioning of food safety guarantees, the committee said ministers “underestimated” the impact of the incident and “acknowledged too late the numerous policy-related questions that had to be answered” in order to contain it.
The ministries responsible for overseeing food safety also failed to properly inform parliament about the fipronil scare. “The ministries had much trouble recapitulating the correct information. Letters sent to the House of Representatives in August 2017 were incomplete and provided a distorted picture of the situation.”
Failure of public-private oversight
Ultimately, the report found that the combination of public-private oversight is failing to deliver a comprehensive food safety system.
“The supervision by private and public bodies together does not form a conclusive system of guarantees. It lacks cohesion and the activities do not supplement each other.”
Concluding the document, the commission said both private companies and the authorities needed to make safety in the food sector a higher priority.
“Food safety must be given the highest priority when establishing their work activities and processes. The commission recommends companies and directors in the egg sector to take care of a credible system of self-regulation in which food safety is the key priority…
“The commission is of opinion that the NVWA has to ensure that food safety is considered the highest priority in all departments. Food safety has to be integrated visibly and unambiguously within the organisation. Indications must be assessed integrally and in a timely manner so maximum clarity on the risks and the social impact of the violations is obtained prior to making a decision on an administrative or criminal approach.”