THE HAGUE • Years of cuts at the Dutch food watchdog agency and a tendency among politicians to put economics ahead of public safety could be to blame for the European Union's tainted-egg scandal, which has spread as far as Hong Kong.
Millions of eggs have been taken off supermarket shelves and dozens of poultry farms have closed since it emerged on Aug 1 that eggs contaminated with fipronil, which can harm human health, were being exported and sold. Fipronil is widely used to rid household pets of fleas, but is banned by the EU for the treatment of animals destined for human consumption, including chickens.
The World Health Organisation says fipronil is "moderately hazardous" in large quantities, with potential danger to people's kidneys, livers and thyroid glands.
The Dutch food safety authorities admitted last week they got an anonymous tip-off last November about fipronil use in chicken pens, but refuted allegations of negligence.
"It's mind-blowing that there was no connection made then between the tip-off and the fact that fipronil might have contaminated both chickens and eggs," investigative journalist and food writer Marcel van Silfhout told Agence France-Presse.
Had food and goods watchdog NVWA acted then, the latest trouble to hit the export-dependent Dutch food sector could have been largely avoided, said Mr van Silfhout, who penned a critical book about food safety and NVWA in 2014.
Utrecht University toxicologist Martin van den Berg said: "If there were investigators who were experts in this area and understood the impact of fipronil, maybe there'd have been a different reaction."
But after consultations following the tip-off, NVWA decided "there was no reason to think fipronil would enter either eggs or chickens", two Dutch ministers said in a letter to Parliament last Thursday.
Much of the problem can be traced back to a growing loss of expertise, say experts; NVWA and its predecessors have faced a series of cutbacks since 2003.
The overburdened agency, which deals with food security but also the general safety of goods, saw full-time staff shrink from 3,700 in 2003 to 2,200 over the following decade, said Dutch daily Trouw.
The figure has gone back up slightly to about 2,600, but many staff are not experts in their fields, according to Mr van Silfhout.
The Netherlands has been hit by a series of food scandals, including an outbreak of Q fever in 2007 that killed dozens, for which the blame was firmly laid on NVWA.
Although a 2013 scandal over horse meat - a Dutch firm was passing it off as beef to be used in burgers and other meat products across Europe - had no health implications, NVWA was criticised for not being stringent enough in its oversight.
In 2003, NVWA was moved from under the health ministry to agriculture, which then fell under the economic affairs ministry.
Over the years, the farming industry started to largely "regulate itself and agrarian motives got the priority", Mr van Silfhout said in his 2014 book, Deboned: How Safe Is Our Food Still. He wrote: "A culture of soft enforcement took hold... instead of clear independent inspections."
Mr Pieter van Vollenhoven, Princess Margriet's husband and a former Dutch Safety Board chairman, agreed. "At (farming) companies, economic considerations quickly took the lead," he told Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad during a recent interview.
"NVWA must stand up for public interests, for food security. Alas, the agency in reality is not a food watchdog, but an extension of economic policy," said Mr van Vollenhoven.