Around 700,000 eggs from Dutch and Belgian farms implicated in a contamination scare have been distributed to Britain, rather than the 21,000 first estimated, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said.
The insecticide Fipronil, found in the eggs, can be harmful to humans if consumed in large doses.
Egg-containing products including salads, quiches and sandwiches have been recalled from Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda and Morrison’s, although the FSA said some of the recalled products will have already been consumed.
Although the number of affected eggs which have entered the country is 33 times higher than was originally estimated, the FSA stressed there is no need for panic.
FSA chairwoman Heather Hancock said: “I’m confident that acting quickly is the right thing to do.
“The number of eggs involved is small in proportion to the number of eggs we eat, and it is very unlikely that there is a risk to public health.
“Based on the available evidence there is no need for people to change the way they consume or cook eggs. However, Fipronil is not legally allowed for use near food-producing animals and it shouldn’t be there.”
Fipronil is unauthorised for use in food-producing animals, the FSA added in a statement, which it put out following an investigation into the problem.
Fresh eggs are not believed to be affected, but Aldi and Lidl stores in Germany, along with Dutch supermarkets, have already taken millions of eggs off their shelves.
Aldi said it was a “purely precautionary” measure.
The scare began in the Netherlands and Belgium and it is thought that disinfectant used in products on chicken farms is at fault.
Belgian authorities admitted that a farm alerted them to possible contamination in June – several weeks before the scare became public knowledge – but they thought it was an isolated case.
Britain produces 85 per cent of the eggs it consumes but still imports almost two billion annually, the FSA added.
Reported adverse effects from consumption of Fipronil include sweating, nausea, vomiting, head and stomach pain, dizziness and seizures, according to the US National Pesticide Information Centre.
Approximately 180 Dutch farms, including egg farms, are believed to have used a product containing Fipronil to treat red mite in poultry houses. Fipronil is banned for use around food-producing animals in the EU.
Fipronil is classed by the World Health Organisation as a Class II moderately-hazardous pesticide.
The affected products are processed foods in which eggs are one of the ingredients, mainly sandwich fillings and other chilled foods.
Many of the eggs involved were mixed with other eggs which have not come from affected farms so Fipronil residues will be highly diluted, according to the FSA.
“While in some European countries eggs containing Fipronil residues have been sold as fresh eggs, in the UK this is not the case,” it said.
“Many of the eggs involved were mixed with other eggs which have not come from affected farms so Fipronil residues will be highly diluted.
“It is likely that the number of eggs that have come to the UK is closer to 700,000 than the 21,000 we previously believed had been imported.
“However, as this represents 0.007 per cent of the eggs we consume in the UK every year, it remains the case that it is very unlikely that there is any risk to public health from consuming these foods.”
The statement added: “We are reminding food businesses of their legal responsibilities which include informing the FSA or FSS and relevant local authorities immediately if they have any reason to believe that a food which they have imported, produced, processed, or distributed does not comply with food safety requirements.”
In spite of the reassurances offered by the food industry, some experts predicted the problem could escalate.
Professor Chris Elliott, chair if food safety at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “The fipronil scandal continues to grow – more affected farms, flocks and indeed countries. I predict more revelations are still to come. There is a growing impact in the UK despite no evidence of any wrong doing in the UK poultry industry.”
British egg processors accused the big supermarkets of “double standards” over their egg-buying policies.
Ian Jones, Chairman of British Lion Egg Processors, said: “The major retailers are operating to double standards when it comes to eggs. All of them stock British Lion shell eggs but they use imported eggs in many of their other foods containing eggs.”
The organisation stressed the need for consumers and food producers to look for both British Lion eggs and egg products.
Mr Jones continued: “This is just the latest of a number of food safety issues connected to eggs produced outside of the UK in recent years.
“As we approach Brexit, shoppers are growing increasingly concerned about the ingredients used in manufactured food and now more than ever want and deserve transparency on food packaging.”
Recalled products are listed below.
By Sainsbury’s Ham and Egg Salad – 240g – August 9-14
By Sainsbury’s Potato and Egg Salad – 300g – August 9-14
Morrison’s Potato and Egg Salad – 250g – August 13
Morrisons Egg and Cress Sandwich – Sold in Morrisons Cafe only – August 11
Morrisons Cafe Sandwich Selection – Sold in Morrisons Cafe only – August 11
Essential Waitrose free range egg mayonnaise filler (240g) – August 16
Essential Waitrose free range reduced fat egg mayonnaise filler (170g – August 14
Essential Waitrose free range egg and bacon filler (170g) – August 14
Asda Baby potato and free range egg salad – N/A – August 9-14
Asda Spinach and free range egg snack pot – N/A – August 9-14
Asda FTG Ham and Cheddar ploughman’s salad bowl – N/A – Aug 9-13
Affected retailers have been quick to point out that all of their raw eggs in shells are sourced from Britain and unaffected by the contamination scare.
However, a senior representative for the British egg industry said that UK supermarkets were “operating to double standards” by using cheaper, foreign-sourced eggs for processed products.
“This is just the latest of a number of food safety issues connected to eggs produced outside of the UK in recent years,” said Ian Jones, chairman of British Lion egg processors.
“Consumers clearly want retailers and food manufacturers to use good quality British ingredients that are produced to high standards of food safety, but in some prepared foods this is not the case.
“As we approach Brexit, shoppers are growing increasingly concerned about the ingredients used in manufactured food and now more than ever want and deserve transparency on food packaging.
The egg industry believes that this is a great opportunity for retailers to listen to the concerns of their customers and reassure them by specifying the use of British eggs and using the ‘Made with British Lion eggs’ logo on packs.”
The British egg industry produces enough for the country to be entirely self-sufficient in eggs, according to Prof Chris Elliott, the director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “The safety of our products is our priority. Our supplier has made us aware that two salad bowls, which contain egg, may include very small traces of fipronil. The FSA has advised that this is unlikely to pose a health risk, but we’re withdrawing these products from sale on a temporary basis as a precautionary measure. We’re sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”
A Waitrose spokesperson said the supermarket sometimes used imported eggs when there were insufficient British free-range eggs available on the market to use as an ingredient in own-brand products.
“Three of our sandwich fillers have been withdrawn from sale as a precaution,” the spokesperson said. “Our own assessments based on industry-wide scientific standards have shown that these products do not pose any risk to health.”
A spokesman for Morrisons said: “We are working closely with the FSA on their fipronil investigation and we have taken precautionary and prompt action to withdraw the three products that may be affected. The safety of our customers remains our priority.”
The contamination scare became public on 1 August when it was revealed that tests had established that fipronil, which is banned across the EU from use in the production of foodstuffs, had found its way into the food chain.
Exposure to fipronil can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness. Long-term exposure to large quantities can cause thyroid, liver and kidney damage, and can even lead to seizures.
Authorities in the Netherlands ordered eggs to be pulled from supermarket shelves and temporarily closed down about 180 farms. Millions of eggs were subsequently removed from sale in Belgium and Germany.
The European commission said on Monday that British food safety authorities had been alerted over the weekend that eggs imported from Germany could be dangerous. Officials in France, Sweden and Switzerland were also informed of a risk to consumers.
Dutch investigators said on Thursday they had arrested two managers at the company that allegedly used fipronil at poultry farms. The arrests came after coordinated raids with Belgian authorities at eight locations across the Netherlands with the assistance of the EU’s Europol and Eurojust agencies.
“The Dutch investigation focused on the Dutch company that allegedly used fipronil, a Belgian supplier as well as a Dutch company that colluded with the Belgian supplier,” prosecutors said.
“They are suspected of putting public health in danger by supplying and using fipronil in pens containing egg-laying chickens.” Dutch media named the suspects’ company as ChickFriend.
Belgian prosectors in Antwerp said they had launched raids at several companies potentially implicated in the illegal use of fipronil.
A spokesman, who declined to offer any further details, said: “Several searches are currently under way.”
The two companies focused upon until now have been the Dutch firm ChickFriend, which specialises in the disinfection of poultry farms, and its Belgian supplier Poultry-Vision.
A European commission spokesman, Daniel Rosario, called on member states to put their differences aside over the issue. Belgium accused the Netherlands on Wednesday of failing to sound the alarm on discovering in November that fipronil was being used illegally in the keeping of chickens.
“Now it is the moment to act in a decisive, coordinated and transparent manner, not to be engaging in any kind of blame game,” Rosario said, adding that the commission expected EU leaders to discuss how to learn lessons from the scandal at the next meeting of the European council.
Heather Hancock, the FSA’s chair, said: “I’m confident that acting quickly is the right thing to do.
The number of eggs involved is small in proportion to the number of eggs we eat, and it is very unlikely that there is a risk to public health.
“Based on the available evidence there is no need for people to change the way they consume or cook eggs. However, fipronil is not legally allowed for use near food-producing animals and it shouldn’t be there.”
The FSA had originally said British food safety inspectors were trying to trace 21,000 eggs imported from affected farms in the Netherlands between March and June.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) says the highest amount of fipronil measured was 1.2mg per kg of egg. It calculates that an adult weighing 65kg (143lb) would be able to eat up to seven eggs within 24 hours and still be within the safe range.
A child weighing 16.15kg (35.6lb) should not eat more than 1.7 contaminated eggs within 24 hours, it said.