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  • Associated Press A woman touches fresh eggs at a chicken farm in Gaesti, Romania, on Friday. Millions of eggs in the European Union have been destroyed since July 20 after chickens were illegally sprayed with the insecticide Fipronil.

Saturday, August 12, 2017 1:00 am

Insecticide-tainted eggs stir up Europe

Consumers doubt safety assurances

Associated Press

AMSTERDAM – Experts say the risk of getting sick from eating an egg tainted with insecticide is low. But that hasn't stopped stores in Germany and the Netherlands from stripping them from supermarket shelves, or prevented other European food safety agencies from issuing warnings.

The story about the illegal use of the insecticide Fipronil in spray to rid hens of ticks, fleas and lice has gained traction across Europe. Fears about the safety of a food staple along with some less-than-optimal public information have combined to cast a shadow of suspicion over the humble egg.

Fipronil is commonly used by veterinarians to treat fleas and ticks in pets but is banned by the European Union for treating animals that are part of the human food chain.

The EU said contaminated eggs have been found at producers in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. It's believed the Fipronil got into the food chain when it was illegally added to a product used to spray poultry.

The impact for egg producers has been staggering. Since July 20, Dutch farmers have destroyed millions of unsellable eggs and culled about 1 million hens, said Hennie de Haan of the Dutch union of poultry farmers.

But nobody has been reported to have fallen ill as a result of eating the tainted eggs.

“People are very susceptible to negative information,” said Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a social psychologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “People are very attuned to perceive and respond emotionally to negative information such as potential health hazards or other threatening stimuli.”

In recent days, Dutch authorities blocked sales from about 180 infected farms treated by a company suspected of illicitly using Fipronil.

That sent consumers to their refrigerators to check the small codes printed in red ink on the shells of eggs to see whether they are from one of the affected farms. Stores have pulled eggs from contaminated farms off their shelves.

The European Union said Friday that tainted eggs have been found in 15 EU countries, plus Switzerland and Hong Kong.

In Germany, some supermarkets stopped selling all Dutch eggs regardless of whether they came from infected farms. British authorities issued a warning about a small number of ready-made salads, sandwiches and spreads containing contaminated eggs.

The precautions came despite food safety experts being nearly unanimous in their opinion that the health risk from eating Fipronil-tainted eggs is very low.

“Even when taken deliberately at 10,000 times the maximum amount likely to be consumed from contaminated eggs, the individuals survived with no long-term harm,” Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology, Imperial College London, said in a statement.

So why are consumers concerned?

“Bad is stronger than good,” said Van Prooijen, citing a time-honored maxim among psychologists. “And that means human beings pay more attention to negative things than positive things, because negative things can harm you.”

The acting inspector-general of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, Freek van Zoeren, said on a Dutch TV news show that, “if somebody says 'I can live without eggs until Sunday,' I'd advise that.”

Dutch Health Minister Edith Schippers acknowledged on another show Thursday night that the statement was ill-judged.