Nobody should count their chickens before they hatch, but Spanish egg producers appear to have made it through an international crisis involving eggs contaminated with the pesticide fipronil – banned for the treatment of poultry – that has affected 17 European countries.
Millions of eggs have been recalled in countries including Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium in the wake of the scandal.
However, no contaminated products have been distributed in Spain to date and only two consignments of affected egg imports have been seized by authorities – one each in the northern regions of the Basque Country and Catalonia. In both cases, the products did not make it onto supermarket shelves.
Spanish producers and experts believe exhaustive internal controls and year-round official checks on quality and safety have spared the country.
In the case of farms producing organic eggs for example, each hen must have at least four square meters of space. And all animals, whether they are free-range or battery, are subject to continual inspections of antibiotics or pesticides.
“Sometimes the number of controls is annoying, but in situations like this you are grateful because it leaves no doubts,” says César Redondo, a producer in Spain’s Ávila province who says he plays opera to his hens “so that they become used to the human voice and don’t get stressed when the farmers come in.”
Spanish producers compare the authorities to broody hens who nest all day, whether the eggs under them are theirs are not. In other words, the authorities provide permanent protection.
Among the controls are rules on the use of pharmaceuticals. “Every medicine requires a prescription from a vet,” says Hernando Sánchez, a vet who specializes in food safety. Authorities also carry out random inspections of producers at least once a year, and sometimes more often.
Spanish authorities carry out random inspections on egg producers at least once a year
“There are periodic internal analyses of the product, feed, water and the animals,” says Sánchez.
But public opinion has also played a role in the egg contamination scandal, not just in the 17 countries affected to date, but also in Spain, which has more than 1,000 producers and some 40 million laying hens. “Consumption is going to drop whenever there is a situation like this,” says Redondo.
That said, reduced internal demand will be compensated by increased exports to meet the shortfall caused by the crisis. More than 20% of eggs produced in Spain are now sold overseas. On top of that, eggs are also going up in price because of rising demand and lower supply. “Prices have gone up 10 [euro] cents already and are expected to rise 20 cents more,” says Redondo. This constitutes a 35% increase on the final price.
The crisis came after the detection of eggs containing fipronil, a pesticide which attacks the central nervous system of insects. Consumption of the contaminated eggs can cause nausea and head and stomach pains, although only if large quantities are eaten. In serious cases, the liver, kidneys and thyroid glands can be damaged.
In rare cases, fipronil can lead to damage to the liver, kidneys and thyroid glands
“In Spain we are relatively calm [about the problem]. The serious thing about the situation in Holland is that a banned product is still in circulation,” says Sánchez, referring to the trial of two men who allegedly sold huge quantities of what they claimed was a herbal pesticide but which contained fipronil.
“It is important to establish where it [the fipronil] came from,” Sánchez adds.
In Spain, however, egg farms avoid the use of such products for cleaning because of the risks involved.
“To stop production and throw eggs away would be very costly. The best thing to do is clean every day and avoid toxic products,” says Redondo. Complete disinfection is carried out every 18 to 24 months and is timed to coincide with the moment when hens are removed so that the animals do not come into contact with products stronger than those used on a daily basis.
English version by George Mills.