MPs have been highly critical of the way the Dutch food safety body NVWA has handled the growing contaminated egg scandal during a debate with ministers on Thursday afternoon.
Party agriculture spokesmen were recalled from holiday early to take part in the debate and used the occasion to slam the lack of communication and the slow speed at which the food body has reacted as the scandal unfolds.
In particular, they want to know why the NVWA failed to take action when tipped off that the Dutch company Chickfriend was using the banned chemical fipronil in a de-licing agent in November 2016.
The confusion surrounding the scandal became apparent on August 1 when the NVWA’s deputy chairman told a television programme that people should not eat eggs until more was known about the scale of the contamination.
That comment was condemned by farmers and the NVWA and later partially withdrawn. ‘Confidence [in eggs] was damaged not improved by that statement,’ SGP parliamentarian Roelof Bisschop said during the debate.
Health minister Edith Schippers and junior economic affairs minister Martijn van Dam told MPs in a written briefing on Wednesday that the NVWA had actually received a second tip-off about about the use of fipronil by Chickfriend, the company at the heart of the health scare in the Netherlands.
It was not until Belgium informed the Netherlands that there was a problem with contaminated eggs in July that action was actually taken.
Van Dam told MPs that caution had been exercised about the tip-offs because Belgium was preparing to carry out a formal investigation. In addition, he says, the NVWA receives some 8,000 tip-offs a year which all have to be assessed individually.
Health minister Edith Schippers told MPs that she did not want a discussion about who is responsible for what. ‘The responsibility is ours and we are not walking away from it,’ she said. Nevertheless, it would an illusion to assume that the NVWA can prevent all problems, she said.
The minister has appointed former justice minister Winnie Sorgdrager to head an inquiry into what went wrong. That inquiry will look into the entire food chain from the role of farmers to the NVWA and politicians, she said.
D66 parliamentarian Stientje van Veldhoven said farmers themselves are partly to blame. It is incomprehensible that not one farmer stepped in when a new little company appeared with a ‘wonder’ solution to successfully solve the louse problem, she said.
‘If something is too good to be true, then it probably is,’ she said.
Van Dam said the scandal is a ‘painful and bitter lesson’ for poultry farmers. The direct damage to farmers is put at €33m, but impact on the entire food chain has estimated at €150m. So far, 258 poultry farms have been banned from selling eggs and meat.
The government has no plans to help farmers financially and a number are known to be preparing to sue the NVWA for its failings.