August 25, 2017
The regulatory net cast by the EU to protect consumers against harmful products was found to have an egg-shaped hole in it last month as the fipronil scandal broke and spread continent-wide. In the process it has raised some difficult questions about the bloc’s regulatory regime: specifically, the contrast between the leisurely response of the authorities in reporting and tracking down eggs contaminated with an illegal chemical, and the hurdles put in place to prevent glyphosate – which is both safe and essential for food production – from having its licence renewed. At a time when the EU is locked in strenuous negotiations with the UK over food safety regulations, such cracks in the system will come under even greater scrutiny.
Ground zero for the contaminated egg scandal seems to be a company in Belgium, which began producing a spray for de-lousing chicken coops containing the banned chemical fipronil. A company in the Netherlands is also under investigation. Whatever the source of the contamination, millions of eggs have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves as elevated levels of the insecticide designed to kill fleas, ticks and lice on chicken have been detected in eggs sold in 17 countries in Europe and even as far as Hong Kong.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it took nearly a month for Dutch authorities to launch an investigation once they had been alerted to the problem. Both the Dutch and the Belgians have been reproached by German authorities for failing to promptly pass on information, leading the Germans to do their own tests on Dutch and Belgian eggs and leading the spokesperson of North-Rhine-Westphalia’s agriculture and consumer protection ministry to publicly wonder if the Belgians were “up to the job”.
While egg producers will take a financial hit in the short-term, once the affected batches have been taken out of circulation, the crisis will pass, lessons will be learned and the industry will move on. Much more worrying is the EU’s failure to come to a long-term solution to the question of glyphosate, an herbicide that has been widely used for four decades without any cause for safety concerns and yet languishes in regulatory limbo. Its market licence expires this year, and, although there is a tentative proposal in place for it to be renewed for another 10 years, EU leaders are sheepish due to opposition to the substance from green activists.
The disrepute into which the herbicide has fallen in recent years can be traced back to a questionable assessment by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that labelled glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogen. This is misleading on a number of levels. First, the terminology employed created the impression that the consumption of food sprayed with glyphosate poses an imminent health risk. However, this is not in fact what the determination means. As Dr. Bernhard Url, head of the European Food Safety Authority, explained, “if it exists at all, [carcinogenicity] is seen at such levels that you would have to eat the food of 20,000 people every day in order to reach it. And this is unlikely to happen.”
Second, the amount of media attention received by the IARC report was another misleading factor. The screaming headlines from this one study drowned out the findings from numerous other international scientific bodies (and actual global regulators), such as the European Chemicals Agency or the Environmental Protection Agency, that found glyphosate to be safe when used in recommended levels. The hysteria unleashed by the IARC report is painfully symptomatic of a deeper crisis of confidence in Europe’s consumer protection bodies by the wider public. Mistrust in these institutions has reached such critical levels that even evidence from forty years of Roundup use during which no causation with cancer has been found, is not enough to calm the waves.
However, a number of irregularities in the IARC’s assessment of glyphosate have emerged fast and loose. First it was revealed that Aaron Blair, the leading scientist on the IARC review panel, withheld important studies from other panellists that found no link between glyphosate and cancer. Blair actually worked on the study in question, the Agricultural Health Study of the U.S. National Institute for Health, making his actions even more puzzling.
When asked why he didn’t introduce this evidence into their deliberations, Blair argued that since the studies were unpublished it would have contravened IARC stipulations that only published materials can be considered. In an unexpected twist, he also admitted that the studies would have altered IARC’s findings. This assessment was then compounded by the revelation that Charles William Jameson, another IARC panellist, was left in the dark about two further studies from Germany that also determined the chemical not to be responsible for cancer in humans.
Again, it stands to reason that had this information been introduced it would have radically altered IARC’s conclusions. Perhaps then EU leaders wouldn’t be in the bind that they find themselves in today, where they lack the political courage to extend glyphosate’s licence.
It is a fear that they will have to overcome quickly, for the fipronil scandal has painfully laid open the fact that Europe still has not found a way to effectively and uniformly police its own food supply or agricultural sector. That’s a shame, because regulations are meaningless if they cannot be effectively enforced. But doing so also requires ending the hypocrisy surrounding things like glyphosate, whereby its safety is being questioned while the contamination of eggs with a banned substance couldn’t be prevented. The EU must be careful not to end up leaving with egg on its face.