Richard North, 08/08/2017  

The squeals of protest about having to accept "less safe" US food supplies are beginning to look a bit thin of late as several stories on food safety and related issues emerge on the continent. The biggest of these is the pesticide in eggs scandal initially affecting Holland where last week hundreds of thousands of eggs were declared unfit for human consumption.

The issue of concern is high levels of fipronil a pesticide supplied in liquid form for application to dogs in order to prevent or treat lice and flea infestations. The product is not cleared for use on food animals or poultry and is moderately toxic to humans. In high concentrations, it could have dangerous effects on kidney, liver and thyroid gland function.

Yet it has been found in hens' eggs in such high levels that the Dutch food and product safety board (NVWA) is concerned that "their consumption represents a serious danger to public health". It has advised purchasers "not to eat them and throw them away".

With investigations ongoing, some 180 poultry farms have been forced to suspend sales, but there are also reports that tainted eggs have been available for some considerable time. Some eggs have been sold to Germany and almost certainly elsewhere, including Belgium. Limited quantities have been sold in the UK.

By late last week, supermarket shelves in the Netherlands and Germany were being cleared, with suggestions that the damage to the Dutch egg industry could run into millions of euros. Millions of hens, it is reported, may have to be culled.

It is believed the substance got into the food chain via a Dutch business, named Chickfriend. Somehow, we are told, it got mixed in with "Dega 16," a sanitizer used on many poultry farms. The "additive" was provided by a Belgian supplier and there is now an ongoing investigation to ascertain whether the Dutch company knew this was a prohibited ingredient.

But, in a development redolent of the 1999 Dioxin scandal, when seven million hens and 60,000 pigs had to be destroyed, it now emerges that the Belgian authorities have been aware of a potential problem with fipronil in the poultry sector since June, but withheld information while a fraud investigation was being carried out.

The significance of the Dioxin scandal – as Booker and I point out in our book Scared to Death - was that it was influential in provoking the EU Commission to take a stronger hand on framing food safety legislation, and instrumental in creating the European Food Safety Agency.

By this means, the succession of food scares which had riven the food industries of Europe since the late 1980s were to be dampened down as a new control regime was introduced throughout the EU (and Efta EEA states). But now, it seems, we are back where we started.

And this seems even more the case with Poland experiencing a significant upsurge in Salmonella food poisoning, much of it attributed to the consumption of poultry meat and eggs.

Moreover, as of 31 July, 29 cases of Salmonella originating from Polish products have been reported by 14 other EU Member States to the Commission's Food Safety Alert system. This compares to a total of 27 for the whole of 2016 and 17 in 2015.

It was, of course, the Salmonella in eggs crisis triggered by then junior health minister Edwina Currie in December 1988, which set off a wave of food scares lasting well into the 1990s, culminating in the "mother of all food scares" in March 1996 when health minister Stephen Dorrell, officially announced that there was a "probable link" between BSE and the neurological disease, vCJD.

Just over 20 years later, after more than a decade basking in the warm glow of EU food safety controls, it seems we may be poised a re-run, especially if the US gains access to UK markets and we see a resurgence of food-related disease in this country – whether or not it is associated with imported foods.

Ironically, the Polish salmonella epidemic comes at a time when the Commission has withdrawn its support for the authorisation of formaldehyde as a feed additive - said to be "the most efficient tool to fight against the bacteria in animal feed".

Formaldehyde is used as a feed additive in poultry and has been on the EU market for several years but its authorisation expired in 2015 The issue has been stuck in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed for two-and-a-half years, with France and Italy blocking re-authorisation due to worker safety concerns.

As a result, several member states stopped using formaldehyde in animal feed, including Poland, putting at risk what is described as one of the Commission's biggest food safety successes in the past decade – the eradication of salmonellas in poultry.

Formaldehyde is not the only product being blocked. The Commission is also experiencing difficulty re-authorising the herbicide Glyphosate, after Member States failed to give it the go-ahead.

In another area, it is reported that Europe is "under siege" from a wave of imports of "fake" pesticide, with a further report that Greece has just seized more than 700kg of illegal pesticides that originated from Turkey.

From the UK perspective, these events have several implications for Brexit. While we have been writing extensively about EU sanitary controls on UK imports, we have also suggested with its high level of health controls, EU produce will get free access to the UK.

However, if EU Member States are still failing to deal with adventitious food additives, as in the fipronil scandal, if it is banning products that the UK would wish to use – thus creating regulatory divergence – if we are seeing a resurgence of epidemic salmonelloses on the continent, and if the EU border is porous to illegal pesticides, then we are going to have to consider whether a light touch on EU imports is entirely appropriate.

Then, if we start using pesticides and other chemicals which are not permitted in the EU, we can expect a higher level of border checks before UK food products are allowed entry.

This can also work in other ways. The long-running issue of contaminated beef in Brazil has not yet been resolved by the Commission, after imports were suspended from 21 meat packing plants. However, Hong Kong and China have resumed imports, and an independent UK might have decided to do likewise – a move which would have required intensified origin checks on UK exports to the EU.

Bearing in mind that there is a chance that we will no longer be a full part of the EU's food safety system, and may not have access to its market surveillance data (with the EU also cut off from UK intelligence), there is a further likelihood of intensified border checks.

Putting this all together, it seems events are conspiring to maximise food safety stresses between the UK and the mainland – also providing a harbinger for the difficulties we may encounter. On the basis of what we are seeing, few could be confident that maintaining the free flow of foodstuff and animals across the EU external border (also comprising Ireland) will be an easy option.

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