Millions of eggs contaminated with pesticide. National food safety authorities “forgetting” to alert the Commission or each other. And then the EU system taking weeks to issue an alert. Still, the Commission’s reaction to the fipronil in eggs shambles in August was resolute: it called a “non-crisis” meeting for 26 September.
Its priority was to calm things down. As well as allowing tempers to calm among the affected Member States, this “non-crisis” approach helped end media interest in the story. Chances are, by 26 September Brussels based journalists will have bigger stories to chase than fipronil in eggs. But does the Commission’s lack of urgency over this latest EU food scandal risk sending the wrong message to dodgy food producers and timid national officials? And will it really “reassure” Europeans that their food is safe?
Building and maintaining public trust is at the heart of effective risk communication. This means communicating about potential risks in a timely and transparent manner. It also means acknowledging people’s concerns and not offering false reassurance. The Dutch and Belgian food safety authorities seem to have broken every one of the rules of good risk communication. They had known since June, and possibly as far back as November in the case of the Dutch, that fipronil was being used illegally to clean chicken coops on farms in their countries. The reason why the EU bans the use fipronil to de-louse chickens and other food animals is because it might get into food. Yet the Belgian and Dutch authorities initially decided not to communicate about the situation. On 22 July, when the Dutch food safety authority eventually issued a statement saying fipronil had been found in eggs, it gave the false reassurance that “there is no immediate danger to public health”. It stated measures were being taken against 7 companies and eggs from 4 farms had been recalled, but did not name the companies or farms.
On 26 July, as their investigations continued, the Dutch food safety authority (NVWA) issued a more nuanced statement: “Thus far, none of the eggs investigated by the NVWA contained concentrations posing an immediate public health risk. However, potential harmful effects may arise from prolonged consumption of eggs contaminated with fipronil.” Then on 31 July NVWA backtracked even further and issued a “precautionary warning” against eating eggs with certain batch numbers: these contained such high concentrations of fipronil that they could be a hazardous to young children. It still took a few more days, though, before the Netherlands issued a formal alert about the eggs via the EU and Rapid Alert System on Food & Feed Safety.
The details of who knew what when – and who alerted who – will no doubt be explored in depth in the run up to the 26 September meeting. From 31 July onwards, once it accepted it had a food safety incident on its hands, NVWA started communicating proactively and transparently. But the events of June and July tell the story of national food safety officials who are reluctant to sound the alarm. Their instinct is to “reassure the public” and avoid a food safety scare. Similar instincts can be seen in the Commission, once the EU becomes involved. Its statements downplayed the health risk and avoided criticism of the national authorities.
The reason for this cautious approach is easy enough to work out. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Europe’s top priorities have been economic growth and job creation. Europe’s agri-food sector is worth €750 billion a year and employs around 48 million people. Food scares can be costly in terms of jobs and money. Stakeholders in the Netherlands estimate the firpronil scandal has so far cost government and businesses is their country between €33 million and €150 million. Officials and the authorities they work for don’t want to be accused of starting a costly food scare.
This paranoia about food scares could be seen in the Commission’s response to the 2013 Horsemeat scandal. In January of that year, tests carried out by the Irish food safety authority found traces of horsemeat in products labelled as pure beef. Other Member States started testing and also found traces of horsemeat. Beef lasagne and 100% pure beef burgers sold in some leading supermarkets turned out to be 100% horsemeat. The Commission waited until mid-February to become involved, as it initially thought (or hoped…) the fraud might affect just one or two countries. Then when the Commissioner for Health & Food Safety (Tonio Borg at that time) discussed the situation with EU agriculture ministers on 13 February 2013 he started and ended his remarks by saying the it does not pose a threat to public health.
The Commission and national food safety authorities should be careful about giving constant reassurance. It can come across as condescending and complacent. Consumers can understand that the risk to their health is low, but still be angry about being sold unwholesome food. The repeated failure of EU regulators to acknowledge consumers’ anger and unhappiness is telling. It sends the message that the authorities are more concerned with protecting the agri-food industry than consumers.
The EU revised and updated its Food Law to incorporate lessons learned from the horsemeat scandal. The European Parliament and Council formally adopted the new Law in March this year, which provides for more testing of products and more powers for national authorities to impose financial penalties on companies that break the rules. As Parliament was finalising the Law, the current Commissioner for Health & Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, told MEPs: “Consumers and businesses should feel reassured that the control system across the EU is fit for purpose and safeguards the safety and quality of the entire agri-food chain.” The fipronil in eggs incident shows the control system is maybe a bit less fit for purpose than we would like. The missing element, though, is something that cannot easily be legislated for: the courage of officials and authorities to sound the alarm about food safety problems, rather than try to hush them up.