UK food safety inspectors trying to trace 21,000 eggs imported from affected Dutch farms but experts say that may be difficult.
Eggs contaminated with a toxic insecticide harmful to humans may have reached shops in the UK.
British food safety authorities were alerted over the weekend that eggs imported from Germany could be dangerous, the European commission said in Brussels on Monday. Officials in France, Sweden and Switzerland have also been informed of a risk to consumers.
A spokeswoman for the commission, Anna-Kaisa Itkonen, said it was “up to the Swedes, Swiss, French and to the UK national authorities to check”.
British food safety inspectors were trying to trace 21,000 eggs imported from affected farms in the Netherlands between March and June, a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency told the Guardian.
Prof Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast, praised the watchdog’s quick response to the crisis, but warned it could be difficult to track down the eggs.
He expected that most would have gone into the processed food industry. “It will go into bakery, where they are buying a lot of powdered egg,” he said. “If they are sold as shelled eggs they are most likely just going into a sandwich factory somewhere.”
Millions of eggs have been recalled from shops and warehouses in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in recent weeks after some were found to contain high levels of the insecticide fipronil, a common ingredient in veterinary products for getting rid of fleas, lice and ticks. It is banned from being used to treat animals destined for human consumption.
According to the World Health Organization, the toxic substance can damage the liver, thyroid glands and kidneys if ingested in large amounts over time.
The FSA was informed through an alert by German authorities on Saturday, Itkonen said. She said the information was shared as a precautionary measure.
In a statement released after the commission’s comments, the FSA acknowledged that eggs from affected farms on the continent had reached the UK, but said it did not believe any were currently on sale.
“Following concerns raised in the Netherlands about a substance called fipronil which has been used inappropriately in cleaning products on chicken farms, we have identified that a very small number of eggs have been distributed to the UK from the farms affected,” the FSA said.
“The numbers of eggs involved is very small and the risk to public health is very low, but we are urgently investigating the distribution of these eggs in the UK.”
The statement added: “We are working closely with the businesses that have received eggs from affected farms. Investigations to date indicate that any affected products are no longer on the shelves … We have no evidence that eggs laid in the UK are contaminated or that fipronil has been used inappropriately in the UK. 85% of the eggs we consume in the UK are laid here.”
The FSA said the number of eggs involved represented about 0.0001% of the eggs imported into the UK each year and that there was no need for consumers to be concerned.
Elliott agreed that the risk to consumers was low, but he said there was no need for the eggs to have been imported at all, as Britain’s egg industry was sufficient to meet national demand. Firms importing eggs from overseas do so to cut costs, he said.
“Although we’re all meant to do exactly the same thing, I think the British welfare standards are higher than other parts of Europe. And you know whenever you put in place high welfare standards there is a cost associated with that. Those 15% [imported eggs] are probably just at the cheap end of the scale.”
A spokeswoman for the British Egg Information Service said she would encourage consumers in the UK to look for eggs marked with the lion stamp that indicates they were laid by UK hens. “More than 85% of the eggs we eat are British eggs, we don’t really import that many,” she said. A similar scheme to the lion mark applies to processed egg products, she added.
Spokespeople for the supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Tesco said there was no chance of contaminated eggs appearing in any of their own-branded products. Sainsbury’s says it only uses British eggs, while Tesco says it does not use any of the suppliers implicated in the contamination.
The source of the contamination appears to be a supplier of insecticide in Belgium. The supplier is alleged to have mixed legal and illegal substances to improve the effectiveness of its product.
Criminal investigations have been launched in the Netherlands and Belgium, where authorities are facing questions over their conduct, having learned of the contamination in June.
Amid growing anger in Germany at the lack of transparency by the Belgians, Belgium’s agriculture minister, Denis Ducarme, said on Monday he had ordered the country’s food safety agency to report by Tuesday on why it failed to notify neighbouring countries until 20 July.
Belgian officials have admitted failing to trigger the EU’s international food safety alert system, but claimed that this was because of a fraud inquiry.
Christian Schmidt, the German agriculture minister, was due to call Ducarme on Monday to demand an explanation. “Somebody must have had criminal intentions when they contaminated eggs with a banned product,” Schmidt said at the weekend. “I expect the relevant authorities to look into this quickly and in great depth. Belgium and the Netherlands in particular are obliged to.”
The European commission refused to comment on the delay in notification “because it’s an ongoing criminal investigation”.
Ducarme said products from 57 Belgian egg producers – about a quarter of the country’s producers – had been blocked as a preventative measure.
In Germany, where the average person consumes five eggs a week, almost every state has reported eggs containing fipronil. About 30% of eggs sold in Germany are imported from the Netherlands.
The Dutch farming organisation LTO said several million hens in the Netherlands may need to be culled at 150 companies; 300,000 had already been killed. A million hens in Germany face slaughter. The Dutch poultry industry has warned that it faces being shut down by the crisis.