Lessons to Be Learned from Fipronil Incident?

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On July 20, 2017, Belgium notified the European Commission via RASFF – the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, of fipronil presence in eggs imported from the Netherlands. The Content of fipronil in contaminated eggs ranged from 0.0031 to 1.2 mg/kg – ppm while the maximum residues levels (MRLs) in EU regulations for fipronil are set at 0.005 mg/kg. Presence of fipronil residues in eggs is believed to have been caused by the illegal use of this chemical on farms in the Netherlands to combat parasites in food-producing animals (chickens). This resulted in fipronil being detected in eggs produced by these animals.

The tainted eggs have spread in the neighbouring EU countries such as Germany, France, Sweden and Luxemburg. This resulted in millions of eggs being recalled from the shelfs and destroyed. Problem became worst when the Belgian food safety agency (AFSCA) admitted knowing about fipronil presence in the eggs as early as June but did not inform the EU, adding that it did not say anything because of a fraud investigation. The scandal deepened as Dutch food safety agency (NVWA) acknowledged it received a “tip-off” in November last year, that fipronil was used to treat chicken pens in order to combat red lice.  

In an effort to end the blaming over the scandal, EU health commissioner proposed a high - level meeting of ministers concerned as well as the representatives of food safety agencies in all member states.

What is Fipronil?

Fipronil is a component used in veterinary products against fleas, mites and ticks. It cannot be used for animals intended for the human consumption, such as chickens. Fipronil is also used as an active substance in plant protection products (pesticide) to control various soil insects. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies fipronil as being moderately toxic to humans. In large quantities, it can cause liver damage to the thyroid or kidneys. The use and the MRLs for fipronil in the EU countries are regulated by Commission regulation (EU) No 1127/2014.

Risk assessment for fipronil was conducted by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) in 2006. It gives us a detailed evaluation of its effects on the environment, animals and humans.   

How toxic is it?

A recent study, conducted by the French food safety agency (ANSES) analyzed toxicity of fipronil found in the eggs. The risk assessment identified the maximum of eggs that could be consumed at one time without an acute risk. The evaluation was carried out on different populations and based on a maximum concentration of fipronil found in tainted eggs.   

These are the results:

 

Average body weight  (kg)

Maximum concentration (mg/kg of egg)

Number of eggs

Adults

70

1.2

≤ 10

Children from age 11 to 17

54

1.2

≤ 8

Children from age 3 to 10

25

1.2

≤ 3

Children at the age of 3

14.5

1.2

≤ 2

Children from age 1 to 3

12.4

1.2

≤ 1

Number of eggs that can be consumed for the exposure to remain below the acute reference toxicity value (ARfD of 0.009 mg / kg)

Outcome of the incident?

As shown in the risk assessment, the danger to human health, from consumption of tainted eggs is minimal.  Through traceability, ANSES discovered that a batch of eggs was placed on the market between April and May 2017. These eggs have already been consumed, without any known impact on the human health. What marked this scandal isn’t only the use of illegal insecticide, but also the inadequate reaction from institutions in charge of food safety. Hopefully lessons will be learned in order to improve existing systems and prevent similar incidents in the future.    

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Tags: European Union Food Contaminants