Agriculture authorities across EU shut hundreds of poultry farms this week and stopped the sale of millions of eggs as safety inspectors warned that many batches contained a toxic insecticide fipronil.
Supermarkets took precautionary measures by withdrawing some cartons, and Aldi in Germany even stopped selling eggs outright. The chemical is completely banned for use on farm animals. Researchers link fipronil to a range of human health problems and point to a particular danger for children.
Christian Meyer, agriculture minister from Lower Saxony, warned that the crisis had not reached its peak and told us that the federal government was downplaying the risks to children.
“The German federal minister is denying the health threats and speaks of an average German consumption,” Meyer told us. “If a child only eats as many eggs as Germans eat on average per month, then that would not be dangerous. But if the child eats … one egg a day, then there’s already a breach of the acute threat level for children regarding that poison — so you see I believe we have to state clearly that there is a possible threat to children’s health.”
The full scale of the problem is still unclear as results of Belgian and German tests are expected in the coming days. It also remains to be seen whether the scandal is limited to eggs, or whether fipronil will transpire to be a risk in cakes and pasta too, as well as chicken itself.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, criminal investigations are under way. Investigators suspect a small company in Flanders called Poultry Vision concocted an illegal fipronil detergent to treat mite-infested chickens, unintentionally sparking an international food safety scandal.
The scandal comes as yet another hammer blow to Europe’s poultry sector, which was hit by a devastating bout of avian influenza last year that meant many farmers lost the ability to sell their eggs.
On July 22, the Dutch food safety authority NVWA said it placed seven poultry companies under investigation after finding fipronil in a batch of eggs. It said at the time that there was no immediate danger to public health.
The issue exploded into a major scandal this week. The NVWA closed 180 farms — which together produce some 40 million eggs a week — and said it had found one farm producing such high levels of fipronil that they posed an acute danger to public health. The Netherlands warned on Thursday that eggs from 59 producers should not be served to children.
Belgian health authorities are investigating their own poultry sector and blocked sales from a number of suspect farms. Kathy Brison, spokesperson for the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain, said early tests suggested the levels of fipronil in Belgian eggs were much lower than those in the Netherlands. Full results, however, are still pending.
Germany is far less sanguine. German officials said they are frustrated by the lack of information they received from Belgium and the Netherlands but are testing imports from both countries. Full Belgian results are still pending, but illegal levels of fipronil were detected in German and Dutch eggs.
Contrary to the Belgian position that there was no danger, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) said the highest level measured in Belgian eggs had a fipronil count of 1.2mg/kg. It cautioned that above 0.72mg/kg, there could be health risks for children.
Wilhelm Deitermann, spokesperson for North-Rhine-Westphalia’s agriculture and consumer protection ministry, said Belgian authorities were not giving them any information whatsoever on which farms had been tested or on test results. He doubted the Belgians were up to the job. Lower Saxony’s Meyer told us it was likely that more than 10 million eggs containing fipronil were sold in Germany.
A senior Belgian food safety official told us that a Belgian company called Poultry Vision near Antwerp was the prime suspect. It allegedly supplied a Dutch coop-cleaning business with its own signature delousing detergent. The official told us the company started using fipronil from January.
Authorities in the Netherlands also told us they were investigating another Dutch company. The cleaning business using the fipronil product is ChickFriend.
Poultry Vision admits the use of the insecticide was a simple error of judgment. “I think they just did tests to see if fipronil worked and it did and then carefully tested if the animals would be harmed when spraying,” the company told us.
Dutch authorities are under fire at home for taking so long to react after we originally tipped them off about the problem on June 19. Paula de Jonge, an NVWA spokesperson, told us it was in the process of finding out the background: NVWA is currently working on a timeline to place all events in chronological order. We want to establish exactly how we were informed by the Belgians.
Fipronil is highly toxic to bees, mice, rabbits and some birds. It acts on the central nervous system, but the effects are reversible in adults, according to BfR. NVWA says that exposure to fipronil can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and epileptic seizures, but adds that, in general, these symptoms disappear. It can affect the thyroid and liver.
The poultry industry generally separates meat birds from laying hens. These egg hens are still often slaughtered for their meat but butchering differences lower the risk of eating them.
NVWA says that laying hens tend to be used for processed chicken meat, while fillets, for example, come from specially fattened birds. By processing in small pieces, exposure to fipronil is likely to be very limited.
Christian Meyer, Lower Saxony’s health minister, told us German laboratories are testing meat. Germany’s BfR had data from Belgian meat but the fipronil levels were low.
Private businesses aren’t waiting and pulling eggs from their shelves. German supermarket Aldi on Thursday withdrew all of its eggs, citing fipronil fears, while Lidl said it would only sell eggs they could prove were unaffected. Penny and REWE stopped selling any eggs of Dutch origin. Dutch retailer Albert Heijn also removed 14 different types of eggs from its shelves.
The detergent illegally boosted with fipronil was originally authorized for organic farming as it was fortified only with additives such as eucalyptus and menthol. Fipronil has also been found in organic eggs.
There are growing fears that fipronil eggs may have lingered in the food chain for months, and ended up in processed products that rely heavily on eggs. Lower Saxony’s Meyer told us that his state authorities would begin testing these kinds of foods. Dutch authorities are already doing so.
“We cannot rule out that poisoned eggs have also landed in cakes or pasta,” Lower Saxony’s Meyer told us.
Global Animal Partnership (GAP) is an international animal welfare rating program which includes the following:
- Using breeds with measurably improved welfare because most chickens are bred to grow so fast that many collapse under their own weight
- Ending extreme crowding and providing each chicken more floor space
- Keeping chicken litter clean enough to prevent eye sores, flesh burns, and respiratory distress
- Improving lighting standards, including at least six hours of darkness each night and 50 lux of light during the day, to decrease illness and disease
- Ending live-shackle slaughter in favor of less cruel systems, such as controlled-atmosphere stunning, which eliminates the suffering caused by shackling, shocking, and slitting the throats of conscious animals
It is time for leading restaurant chains to ban needless abuse from their supply chains. Consumers are demanding companies ban the cruelest practices from their supply chains, and those that fail to do so are quickly falling behind competitors. The best way for individual consumers to protect chickens and other farmed animals from cruelty is simply to leave them off their plates.
Here are five reasons for giving up meat:
- The environmental impact is huge
Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration and deforestation.
Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change – livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.
Climate change alone poses multiple risks to health and well-being through increased risk of extreme weather events – such as floods, droughts and heatwaves – and has been described as the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century.
Reducing consumption of animal products is essential if we are to meet global greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets – which are necessary to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
- It requires masses of grain, water, and land
Meat production is highly inefficient – this is particularly true when it comes to red meat. To produce one kilogram of beef requires 25 kilograms of grain – to feed the animal – and roughly 15,000 liters of water. Pork is a little less intensive and chicken less still.
The scale of the problem can also be seen in land use: around 30% of the earth’s land surface is currently used for livestock farming. Since food, water and land are scarce in many parts of the world, this represents an inefficient use of resources.
- It hurts the global poor
Feeding grain to livestock increases global demand and drives up grain prices, making it harder for the world’s poor to feed themselves. Grain could instead be used to feed people, and water used to irrigate crops.
If all grain were fed to humans instead of animals, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people. In short, industrial livestock farming is not only inefficient but also not equitable.
- It causes unnecessary animal suffering
If we accept, as many people do, that animals are sentient creatures whose needs and interests matter, then we should ensure these needs and interests are at least minimally met and that we do not cause them to suffer unnecessarily.
Industrial livestock farming falls well short of this minimal standard. Most meat, dairy and eggs are produced in ways that largely or completely ignore animal welfare – failing to provide sufficient space to move around, contact with other animals, and access to the outdoors.
In short, industrial farming causes animals to suffer without good justification.
- It is making us ill
At the production level, industrial livestock farming relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection – in the US, 80% of all antibiotics are consumed by the livestock industry.
This contributes to the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance. Already, more than 23,000 people are estimated to die every year in the US alone from resistant bacteria. As this figure continues to rise, it becomes hard to overstate the threat of this emerging crisis.
High meat consumption – especially of red and processed meat – typical of most rich industrialized countries is linked with poor health outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and various cancers.
These diseases represent a major portion of the global disease burden so reducing consumption could offer substantial public health benefits.
Currently, the average meat intake for someone living in a high-income country is 200-250g a day, far higher than the 80-90g recommended by the United Nations. Switching to a more plant-based diet could save up to 8 million lives a year worldwide by 2050 and lead to healthcare related savings and avoided climate change damages of up to $1.5 trillion.