Over the last couple of days, one of the most talked-about news from Malta was that of tainted eggs being sold on the islands. While the initial rumours and articles being shared had close to no information, thanks to ambiguous statements like “Don’t eat more than two eggs” which provided no further context or statistics, their effect on the general population was swift and intense.
In the last couple of hours, Lovin Malta reached out to Dr. Charmaine Gauci, the Superintendent of Public Health, and Jeanette Borg, who runs Merill (a registered rural network) and MaYA (a young farmers organisation) for more information on the whole matter. What we found is that while there’s definitely a story worth reporting here, the bigger picture is just as essential… and that this whole thing might’ve been slightly blown out of proportion.
Here’s everything we know for now on this situation, and, more importantly, what we don’t know yet.
1. It all started back in late July in Belgium… but it seems to go even further back
On the 20th of July, eggs in Belgium were found to contain traces of the insecticide fipronil. With the Netherlands being one of the world’s biggest exporters of eggs and with new internal documents unearthed showing “the observation of the presence of fipronil in Dutch eggs at the end of November 2016”, the Belgian agriculture minister lead the front against the neighbouring country failing to sound the alarm.
Soon, other countries like Germany were recalling millions of eggs from shops and warehouses, and the food scandal soon took over other parts of Europe.
2. At this point, Malta decided to take an extra precaution
By the time the alarm was raised and the Belgium – Netherlands scandal was made public on the 1st of August, the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) had already been notified and acting swiftly. Countries were being tagged and ordered to swiftly carry out tests, and while Malta is part of this rapid alert system, it was watching from the sidelines, because it wasn’t being mentioned.
“By this point, Malta was not tagged in any alarms or notifications, but we decided to carry out samples anyway,” Dr Gauci said. “More countries kept reporting similar discoveries, so we decided to take action even though we were told we didn’t have to.”
A random sample from a list of retailers (supermarkets) was taken… precisely 20 samples of 20 eggs each, totalling 400 eggs. Since Malta does not have an appropriate lab to carry out these tests, the samples were taken to a lab in Germany. With the entire process requiring a waiting period of around two weeks, the sampling which was carried out earlier in August brought back results yesterday night.
Superintendent of Public Health, Dr. Charmaine Gauci
3. So what did the results show?
First of all, food and produce should have absolutely no amount of pesticide residue found in it. Most of the time, that’s got to do more with legal issues rather than health ones… although it’s of course not a good idea at all to eat food with traces of pesticide in it. EU law states that if 0.72 mg/kg or more of pesticide residue level is found, a consumer recall because of “possible negative consequence on human health” is issued.
The results of the tests on the Maltese samples of eggs showed that eight out of 20 egg samples were contaminated with fipronil. While this initially sounds worrying, it’s worth noting that the pesticide residue level in eggs from Malta was around 0.21mg/kg. That’s almost four times less than the EU limit, and it’s a significant fact to keep in mind. “Even the 0.72 mg/kg of pesticide residue level won’t really affect you unless you eat more than two eggs per day for a prolonged period of time,” said Dr. Gauci, “but we decided to still take similar precautions.”
Of the eight “tainted samples”, two were sold in supermarkets which had eggs coming from Italy. In fact, it seems like this precautionary testing lead to Malta breaking the news to our neighbouring country that Italian eggs might also contain these traces. The tests also resulted in five Maltese chicken farms being sealed since the eggs were packed there, which meant they were blocked from having any food or animals leaving their premises. Now, tests are being conducted on all 36 chicken farms in Malta and Gozo.
4. What does this all say about Maltese farms?
First of all, it does not mean these eggs come from Maltese chickens, or are the fault of Maltese farmers. Certain people have made this incorrect connection over the last couple of years, and the only effect it’s having is a negative one on Malta’s farmers.
“Because of the current situation of biosecurity in Malta, these issues quickly become out of the farmers’ remit,” Jeanette Borg said. “Multiple Maltese farmers have over the last couple of years even showed interest to use organic pesticides, for example, but these continue to not be registered in Malta.”
“It’s important to remind people that these are not Maltese chickens we’re talking about,” Dr. Gauci reiterated. These eggs are locally packed, but not locally sourced. Of course, since eggs have to be fresh, there’s a very big chance that the source is a country not too far away from Malta, but investigations are still being carried out as we speak. The Veterinary Regulation Department is currently carrying out said investigations, and until we know for sure the scope of this phenomenon and its exact source, pointing a finger at anyone – especially Maltese farmers – is both incorrect and very harmful to people who life off of this. In fact, Jeanette noted how sales for Maltese eggs dropped in minutes after the news broke on social media.
Jeanette Borg, who runs Merill (a registered rural network) and MaYA (a young farmers organisation)
5. So why shouldn’t we be alarmed?
Long story short; the situation is currently contained, and the traces found amount to nearly negligible amounts. Of course, this does not mean that the precautions taken were unnecessary ones. “We are doing our obligation,” Dr. Gauci said. “Food should have zero traces of fipronil. We found traces, so we took the necessary measures.” Dr. Gauci went on to explain that the UK and Germany is taking similar measures with even more levels of contamination, and how now, an audit will be carried out to reconfirm that the situation has been contained. At this point, it’s really about finding out where exactly it all came from.
Even with such a small amount found in some of the samples, there is no cause for alarm. As Times of Malta reported last night , no fipronil was found at the farms during the inspections over the past 24 hours. As far as anyone who already has eggs in their fridge is concerned, there is also no cause for alarm. Following the above suggestions given by Public Health (such as not consuming more than two eggs per day) is more than enough.
“If there is a cause for alarm, let us be alarmed, but give us a cause,” Jeannette said. “If there is none, let’s call a spade a spade. Scaremongering is very easy, but it’s very dangerous.”