EU ministers and experts are set to gather over the growing Fipronil contamination crisis - but only months after the news broke. Meanwhile, farmers, processors and consumers are suffering losses in sales and confidence.
A spokesman for the Belgian egg industry says it's a good thing for public health that the Fipronil contamination was discovered, but business is paying a high price. Johan van Bosch, the secretary-general of the Belgian Association of Egg Wholesalers, says his members are tallying up their losses due to the pesticide scandal and preparing to ask the European Commission for compensation for the fall in sales, the rise in prices and the harm to consumer confidence. "It's too early to know the real damage," van Bosch said. "First you need a stable market." And the market is anything but stable, with the contamination crisis spreading by the day.
A day after two men were arrested in the Netherlands in connection with the case, European Commission spokesman Daniel Rosario said the list of affected countries now stands at 15 EU member states plus Switzerland and Hong Kong. Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands all have egg farms which have been closed due to having been cleaned with a Fipronil-laced substance, while eggs from those locations had already been sent to Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. Tens of millions of potentially tainted eggs and products have been pulled from shelves in those countries.
The contamination from the illegally-used insecticide was discovered in Belgium in May when a producer independently tested its eggs and Fipronil showed up, van Bosch told DW. It's a matter of great debate as well as formal investigation what happened next with that information and whether correct procedures were followed in notifying relevant authorities in Belgium and beyond.
Belgian industry clean but lean
It's currently believed that a Flemish company produced the chemical cocktail secretly including Fipronil, which was then used by a Dutch company treating chickens for mites. Fipronil is not allowed for use in the EU anywhere that could touch the food chain, a spokesperson for the European Food Safety Association confirmed to DW.
Van Bosch says the farm that found the tainted eggs destroyed them as well as the hens, and that there are no more affected eggs in Belgium, but that the industry is being hit hard nonetheless. "It's very difficult," he said, due to both the product loss and spooked consumers sending items back or not buying more. In addition, he explains, wholesalers are now testing eggs at their own expense to prove their purity, at 180 euros per test. His biggest member company, van Bosch explained, "has had to do more than a thousand tests."
Philip van Bosstraeten, director of Ovobel, which supplies equipment for the egg industry, says his customers are suffering. "For egg processors the times are hard because of a lack of eggs, uncertainty about batch numbers and a lot of uncertainty from customers," he told DW. In addition, van Bosstraeten notes the price of eggs has already risen more than 10 percent due to the crisis, yet processors have to honor prices they pledged in contracts made months in advance.
Germany banned Dutch eggs in its supermarkets after Fipronil was illegally used to clean chicken pens at egg farms
Commission makes no commitment
Commission spokesman Rosario said Friday it's too early to discuss how EU money could help producers in the egg industry. "For the time being this is a sanitary issue and it's being addressed as such," he said. "We are not at that stage of the discussion yet. We need first to assess the full extent of the situation, its possible impact on the market and then we'll take it from there."
EC health commissioner Vytenas Andriukaitis says he's calling EU government ministers and experts together to examine how the contamination happened and whether procedure need to be reformed. European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva revealed that meeting would only take place September 26. Asked by journalists why officials would wait more than six weeks, Andreeva said the gap is purposeful.
"We would like this meeting to happen with some distance to the ongoing events," Andreeva said. "We would like to have as many facts established as possible ... to draw the relevant lessons and discuss the way forward, how we could improve further our coordination and the system. This is not - let's be clear - a crisis meeting."