Pierre Van Antwerpen is dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy and a researcher at the Research Unit on Pharmacognosy, Bioanalysis, and Drugs. He studies the myeloperoxidase enzyme and especially its therapeutic uses. His research also covers methods for validating and detecting chemical and biological compounds. In addition, he is in charge of the Faculty of Pharmacy's analytical platform, which makes valuable analysis and formulation equipment available to researchers.

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July, 2017 - Fipronil-contaminated eggs

Pierre Van Antwerpen, Research Unit on Pharmacognosy, Bioanalysis, and Drugs

Pierre Van Antwerpen, how can a toxic substance like fipronil end up in the food chain?

The product was used fraudulently: fipronil is an anti-parasite used to treat pets like cats and dogs. Here, fipronil was mixed in with another anti-parasite -‘DEGA-16’, which is legal in the food chain- in order to treat red mites. It should not have been present in the food chain.

Could AFSCA have detected this contamination earlier?

I do not believe so, because there was no reason to believe fipronil could have been present where it was never meant to be. Current detection technologies do not let us screen for all chemical compounds: with an initial suspicion or motive, we can screen for a specific compound by following a specific protocol, but we cannot find what we are not looking for. This is a limitation of analytical methods: we can only look for one molecule -or a family of molecules- at a time. So it is impossible to always check for every known contaminant.

The compound was detected in June, and the public was informed in August; should AFSCA have released a statement earlier?

I believe they needed time to confirm the information in the first place. Two analyses of the same sample gave opposite results, so everything had to be double-checked. Then, they had to find the contaminated batch of DEGA-16, identify which farms had used it, and so on. In addition, fipronil has a low risk of acute toxicity for humans, so there was no urgent public health issue. Had it been a highly toxic product, AFSCA's reaction would have been very different, and more drastic.

Can we expect more revelations or scandals about our food?

As long as the food industry keeps using so many different chemicals, a risk will exist, even disregarding fraudulent uses as was the case here. Unpredictable contaminations are also possible: the organic eggs contaminated with PCB in October is a good example of this. This compound does not biodegrade, and persists in the environment: it can be present in water or in the ground. What's more, ‘organic’ food is equally susceptible to fraudulent contamination.

The only solution would be to reduce the number of products on the market, which would make screening easier to implement. Another solution is to reduce our consumption of these products, which would involve changing our habits.

Is the situation comparable to the dioxin crisis of the 1990s?

The situations are comparable to an extent, as dioxin had also been illegally added to animal feed. Still, the scale was very different from this fipronil contamination, as many more farms were affected. Checks for dioxin in food products have now become common. This will most likely not be the case with fipronil, since manufacturer BASF has announced that it would not be applying for a new authorisation to sell it on the European market. This means fipronil use will decrease, and the risk virtually disappear for European products.

Looking back

Thursday, July 20

AFSCA (Belgium's Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain) launches a Europe-wide alert for eggs contaminated with fipronil, an anti-parasite that is banned from use on food-producing animals.

The Agency detects the substance in early June, but the information will only made public in early August.

The contaminated products originated from Belgium and the Netherlands, and were distributed in 26 European countries and 19 countries outside the EU. Losses are estimated at 21 million euros in Belgium.

In October, certain organic eggs are also taken off shelves, due to the detection of trace amounts of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl).