Fipronil in eggs - a problem of industrial farming

09.08.2017 19:11 | Nutrition

A new scandal is heating up the discussion about food safety again. This time it’s about eggs that have been contaminated with fipronil, an insecticide that is potentially toxic to human health and thus not allowed to be used on food animals. According to current investigation, someone has illegally mixed this insecticide with an organic cleaning product based on essential oils (called Dega-16) and sold it to poultry farms in the Netherlands, Germany and also Belgium, who produce eggs (both conventional and organic) for supermarkets. Since this cleaning product is sprayed into the stall while the chickens are still in it, it gets absorbed by the chickens and thus traces end up in their meat and eggs.

How big is the risk really?

The highest contamination found in Belgium was 1.2mg of fipronil per kg eggs. The EU safety margin for humans is 0.009 mg per kg of body weight per day. For a 50kg person that would mean 0.45mg per day, or 0,375kg of eggs or 5 medium eggs. For a 10kg child that would mean only 1 egg per day though, which is already a much more likely scenario.

As a consequence, many supermarkets have stopped selling eggs and unfortunately many thousands of hens have been killed (because it is apparently cheaper to buy new hens than to wait a few weeks until the product is no longer present in the old hens).

On the one hand this makes sense and sets a strong sign that it’s indeed a serious issue. On the other hand it seems a bit drastic, given that the damage has been done already. All contaminated eggs have either been eaten or destroyed and it is unlikely that eggs hitting the market now will still be contaminated.

Understanding safety limits

Also, it is important to understand the upper safety limits. It is not that once you pass them, you will drop dead. At least not usually. To establish safety values, the smallest dose that ever provoked side effects in animals is taken as a base and then divided by 100 to establish an even higher safety reference for humans. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in the concept of safety limits. I think if a substance is toxic, it shouldn’t be in our food (or water, or air) at all. Period. Fipronil is toxic and even if it won’t kill you immediately, it does potentially affects the health of your liver, kidneys and thyroid, and as such your long-term health and fertility. In the best case, it simply adds to the toxic load our bodies have to deal with. However, the same is true for countless other substances in our food, water and air, some of which I consider to be much more pressing to act upon. For example, Belgium has been ABOVE all established limits for air quality for YEARS and still hardly any action has been taken. How about recalling all Diesel cars from the shops and destroying all existing ones? 

The good sides of the scandal

Exaggerated or not, I personally think this scandal is “good” for several reasons:

1. Boost for short-circuit distribution systems

First of all, it reinforces once again the importance of buying your food from a farm you trust as opposed to buying it in the anonymous supermarket – NOT only of buying “organic” vs. “non-organic”. Even “organic” eggs from the supermarket have been found to be contaminated, so one cannot say that ALL organic eggs are save.

How come?

“Organic” is a market growing double-digit, and as such very interesting for business people to be exploited – not because of any philosophy, but because of profit. Often it’s the same operators (companies) behind the conventional and the “organic” eggs. They simply serve two different types of customers, but still produce in masses for players like Aldi and Co, sometimes simply in two different rooms or on two different fields. That’s true for everything sold at the supermarket, not just eggs, but also meat, veggies and grains. I’ve written before about the differences between “organic” and “organic” and how standards are being watered down the more industries get involved. You find that article here.

What about small-scale organic eggs?

I personally inquired at the farms/shops I buy my food from or that I recommend (Agricovert, Champ d'Abeilles, Topino, Coprosain, Färm) and none of them uses Dega-16 on their farms. Depending on the size of the farm, it seems to be enough to simply allow the chickens to “dust bathe” in wood ash to keep them clean and bug-free (it’s a natural behavior they have).

So rather than the fipronil scandal being a problem of both, conventional and organic egg farms in general, it seems to be (again) a problem of INDUSTRIAL-SCALE farming, whether this farming is labeled conventional or indeed “organic”.

In Germany, sales of organic (non supermarket) eggs have risen 20% after the scandal. That’s a good thing (better than simply stopping to eat eggs), because it supports those who actually do a good job with animals.

2. Criticism for Food Safety Agencies

Apart from that much needed boost for short-circuit distribution systems, this scandal also brings to the surface the double standard applied by the food safety agencies (“AFSCA / FAVV” here in Belgium). It seems they have been aware of the problem since mid-May, and even though they started investigating, they only started communicating publicly about it end of July, allowing contaminated eggs to be marketed for much longer than necessary.

Compare this to their quick and merciless actions taken towards small producers, such as the producers of Hervé raw milk cheese (who had to stop their activities in 2015 after having been asked to apply the same costly industry testing standards to their small production) or a small sheep farmer named Geoffrey Frebutte, who just received a fine of 750 Euro simply because he didn’t send in the demanded documentation the same day of a control, but the day after (still within 24 hours), because he had a medical appointment.

It seems AFSCA is more concerned with closing down small producers producing innocent (and healthy!) raw milk cheese than keeping big players producing eggs contaminated with a toxic insecticide in check… They are under harsh criticism now and hopefully something will be done about their strange double standards.

3. Questioning preventive antiparasite treatments

Last but not least the scandal also shines a light on the double standards applied to human and animal health. Having worked in the Animal Health world for many years, I am only too familiar with fipronil, since it is the major active ingredient in Frontline, a product available without prescription at any pharmacy or vet for the treatment and prevention of fleas and ticks in dogs and cats. The product is available under form of spot-on (drops in the neck) or spray. Thousands of pet owners apply it to the skin of their dogs and cats every month!

A 10kg dog would receive about 70mg of fipronil every 4 weeks. Even if of those 70mg only about 5% (= 3.5mg) is bioavailable, this still corresponds to feeding your dog almost 3kg of contaminated eggs every month!

So either we completely exaggerate the risk of eating contaminated eggs, or we completely underestimate the way we are putting at risk the health of our animals month after month (or we simply don’t value the health of animals as much as the health of humans)!

What about me, the pet owner?

As a pet owner using Frontline, you are also exposed to traces of fipronil. From the Frontline leaflet:

“Frontline Plus spreads from the single point of application, rapidly covering the entire dog and localizing in the hair, on the surface of the skin and in the sebaceous glands. These glands act as a reservoir, continuously replenishing Frontline Plus onto the skin and hair coat, so it keeps working even if the dog gets wet.”

So the product stays on the fur at least partially. Human safety studies that are required prior to registration, like the “petting test” usually find that the amounts of product absorbed through repeated petting of the animal are safe (= below established safety limits). Still, in the leaflet it is advised that contact be avoided with the spot of application until it is completely dry (can take up to 24h), especially by children and that they should not sleep together with the dog the first night to avoid accidental exposure to the still wet area. However, in reality this is not always the case! From own experience I know how quickly you “forget” and pet your animal after just having applied the spot-on (I never used Frontline, since I worked for Bayer, and Frontline is a Merial product, but the same is true for Bayer products, such as Advantage, which contains the controversial “Imidacloprid”). So I think it is realistic to assume that at least some children (and adults) do touch the wet spot. Since in general, topical absorption seems to be rather low as compared to oral ingestion, it is difficult to estimate how much of the product they actually absorb and what the real danger of this accidental exposure is. However it is at least interesting that nobody even mentions this in the context of this fipronil egg scandal.

Should I still use Frontline?

Honestly, I cannot give you a clear answer on this one. It depends. It depends on the prevalence of fleas and ticks and the prevalence of infectious tick-borne diseases such as lyme in the area you live in, how often your pet goes out, the state of health of your pet... For example, in our town garden in Brussels there are no parasites and my cat doesn't get any preventitive treatment (other than coconut oil) as a consequence. However, when I adopted her from the animal rescue center many years ago, she had fleas and I treated her with Advantage, because it is really effective and spares you the enormous nuisance of having your home infested with fleas (we've had fleas in our home twice when I was a kid because of our cats, so I have a trauma...), for which you usually need harsh chemicals, too). If we moved to Spain or even to Southern Belgium, and she would have free access to the woods or fields, I would maybe reconsider preventive treatment. Personally natural products would have my preference, although I haven't experimented with them yet and efficacy is really important since especially ticks can transmit dangerous diseases, such as lyme. As with all medication, risks and benefits have to be weighed against each other. Yes, ibuprofen is bad for the liver, but if I have too much pain, I might still take it. Likewise, fipronil is bad for the liver, but getting lyme disease is even worse. That being said, there's a whole discussion going on in the veterinary world, whether or not Frontline is actually still as effective as claimed or whether parasites start to be resistant to it...

So I guess as a general rule I would say to only treat in case of infestation and to not prevent when living in cities, and to prevent when living in the countryside, but maybe to explore more natural alternatives as well (maybe I will write a blog post on that at some later point). 

Should we stop eating eggs?

So… should we all stop eating eggs now? That would be the least favorable choice for both your body, and the planet. Eggs are a nutritious food, supporting your health and fertility by supplying easy to absorb protein, important saturated fats and cholesterol (read here why those are good for you), fat soluble vitamins D, A and K2, the rare, but key nutrients choline and selenium, and also biotin, sulfur, B vitamins, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Raised in a sustainable way, chickens can contribute to the ecosystem of a farm and support soil fertiity (read more here).

Take Away

I am pretty sure we will see more of these scandals in the future, so my best advice to you is to really reconsider your shopping habits rather than only your eating habits. There are so many alternatives to the supermarket nowadays, which are actually quite convenient and with a fabulous price-quality. If you live in Brussels, I can only recommend Agricovert (www.agricovert.be). I’ve been ordering from them for years and am very satisfied. It’s a farmers’ cooperative of 30 small-scale organic farmers from Wallonia, giving you access to basically all the foods you need in a quality that you can trust and with tastes you will never find at any supermarket. Their standards go far beyond the EU organic label and they have a social finality on top. For other good addresses in Brussels, please check out my list here

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