EC proposes measures to learn from fipronil egg scandal

An “open and frank” discussion at a European Commission meeting in the aftermath of the fipronil egg contamination scandal has resulted in a raft of measures to fight food fraud.

The aim of the high-level meeting was to establish learnings from the fipronil egg scandal in August. The incident affected 40 countries worldwide and has seen millions of eggs pulled from supermarket shelves in Europe and hundreds of farms closed after it was discovered that some eggs from Dutch farms were contaminated with the potentially harmful insecticide fipronil. The chemical is banned in the EU for the treatment of animals destined for human consumption.

Health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis (pictured) said the meeting highlighted that the issue of food safety and food fraud was “at the heart” of the European Union. But he noted that the fipronil scandal showed there were weaknesses in the system that needed to be addressed to avoid and contain any similar situations in the future.

“I wanted this meeting to happen…to make sure that we take stock and reflect on the lessons learnt and I also wanted to enhance communication between Member States and look for a more coherent and co-ordinated approach for the future in order to prevent such incidents from happening,” he said.

“Food fraud cases as this [fipronil] one damage public trust in food safety and can eventually lead to destruction of trust in a particular food industry. Misdoings and fraudulent practices of a few should not have such devastating effects,” he added.

The meeting resulted in 19 “strategic and systematic actions” needed at Member State and EU level to reinforce the EU’s action against food fraud.

Among the measures were:

  • a finalised EU-wide monitoring plan on the presence of illegally used substances in eggs and poultry meat;

  • provisions to strengthen residue monitoring at EU level and to evaluate the existing risk-based monitoring programmes, as well as adapt these to enable early detection of illegal or misused substances;

  • a requirement for Member States to encourage food companies based in Member countries to implement or improve their monitoring programmes;

  • moves to bridge the gap between the use of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) – the system that alerted the EC of the scandal – and the Administrative and Co-operation (AAC) systems with the consideration of a possible combined platform for the two systems alongside guidelines for EU co-ordination;

  • the consideration of a ‘food safety officer’ in each Member State acting as a contact person in relation to food and feed safety issues; and

  • procedures for capacity-building activities including trainings and regular crisis exercises.

The meeting also called for greater co-operation and communication to prioritise co-ordinated efforts that ensure trust and a harmonised approach during incidents or crises, as well as improved risk communication to the general public. The meeting also noted the need to allocate adequate resources to deal with crisis preparedness and management.

The aspects concerning the interaction between RASFF and AAC and the improvement of co-ordination and communication among Member States including the establishment of a single contact point will be further discussed in a context of a working group within the Standing Committee for Animals, Plants, Food and Feed. The discussion will be finalised at the CVOs and CMOs meeting and Heads of Food Safety Agencies meeting in the near future.

In his opening address, Andriukaitis mentioned that the contaminated egg scandal was a result of criminal fraudulent activity and that the public health risk was “negligible and quickly contained”.

However, the incident highlighted issues with how the EC interpreted and communicated risk to Member States and the public, as well as a lack of co-ordination between risk assessment and risk management, and weaknesses in other systems in place, he said.

There have been criticisms that the response to the incident was too slow, with some Member States delaying notification of the problem to the EU.

“Above all, this case illustrates the need for a coherent and coordinated vision, and a firm undertaking from Member States to follow it. I have no doubt that the fipronil incident will lead to the further strengthening of the EU’s food safety and food fraud systems – resulting in superior levels of public health protection for European citizens,” Andriukaitis said.

In a statement after the meeting, he added: “These are the types of concrete measures I was hoping we would agree and I am truly pleased we did. Preserving public health and food safety is a collective responsibility. The wide food supply poses challenges that require us to maintain strong and efficient food fraud detection systems and procedures and to communicate and co-operate at all the levels. I am confident that the actions that we agreed upon will help us do just that.”

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