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Running On Egg Shells
[ Issue 156 Page 9 ] Monday, September 25, 2017, 16:39:10 Juhoon Lee Assistant Editor juhoonlee@kaist.ac.kr

The sanitary pad crisis had yet to even staunch the outpour of its problems before another scandal whisked Korea and the world into chaos. On July 19, the Belgian government reported the first instances of insecticide-contaminated eggs. The European Commission cracked open the case and soon issued a statement that the crisis had originated in Netherlands and affected 15 EU countries, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. National authorities quickly discarded millions of toxic eggs that lined the shelves of their grocery stores. For everyday consumers of eggs — virtually everyone, from hungry college students to multi-billion industries — the news of a toxic chemical compound seeping into the eggs plunged the world into one of the biggest food scares in recent history.

The now infamous insecticide fipronil had been approved for use in 1993 for the eradication of lice, mites, and fleas, though it is banned for use on domestic stock meant for consumption. The use of the chemical was rampant especially in these large-scale egg production farms; egg-bearing chickens are crowded into cages unlike their meat-producing, free-range counterparts, which naturally repel insects by playing in dirt and sand. A significant dose of fipronil can cause liver and thyroid gland damage, especially for the lightweight children and infants who are far more vulnerable to the debilitating health effects it could bring.

The European scandal ignited a separate yet identical debacle in South Korea. Spurred by the recent onslaught of millions of eggs in Europe, the South Korean government reviewed the Korean poultry industry for inappropriate amounts of fipronil. Unlike the Avian Influenza crisis in 2016 that had unexpectedly ravaged the egg industry, the recent scare had been on the Korean government’s radar since April, when a conference with MAFRA, MFDS, and the Korean Consumers Union revealed that fipronil and bifenthrin had been discovered on a few samples. The Consumers Union had requested a joint investigation but the request was brushed aside. Finally, on August 15, MAFRA announced that a farm in Namyangju had used the chemical compound, affecting 80,000 chicken and their subsequent eggs. The next day, 245 farms had been checked, in which six were caught.

But the scrambled responses the authorities released to the public only further aggravated the public when the initial figure of six rose to 31, and again doubled to 64 within the span of two days. Furthermore, fipronil had not been the only compound found. Bifenthrin and Dichrolodiphenyltrichroloethane (DDT), insecticides with more deleterious effects, had been detected in high levels on some of the chicken and their eggs. Bifenthrin usually only causes mild irritation and while not banned, it is classified as a carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency. DDT, on the other extreme, was phased out completely in 1970s after being classified as a carcinogen and a very toxic compound. In the end, a total of 49 poultry farms had been caught for an amalgamation of other insecticides: eight cases of fipronil, 37 bifenthrin, two flufenoxuron, one etoxazole, one pyridaben, and two DDT. Unlike fipronil, any traces of the last four chemicals are illegal. Eventually, MAFRA issued an apology for the opacity, laxity, and inaccuracy of the operation and stated that the health concerns, marked poultry farms, and results of the investigation will be clearly enunciated throughout the day.

Many health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and FSA, explained that fipronil is only “moderately hazardous” and no concrete cases of toxic egg-induced illnesses have been reported. MFDS stated that the 0.54 mg of fipronil causes acute toxicity for a 60 kg adult. They also assured that the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) is only 5% of a harmful dose, meaning daily consumption of toxic eggs slightly over the MRL is unlikely to have a significant effect. However, the Korean Medical Association soon also stated that chronic toxicity, or long exposure to toxins, should cause far more severe health concerns than any short-term outcomes. However, the minimal health concerns had been far outweighed by the economic and societal repercussions brought by the negligence of the government and their stumbles.

The instigators may have been the farms that used fipronil on their chickens, but the enablers had been the governments that had failed to secure necessary preventative and enforcement measures to educate and monitor the poultry farms beforehand. Their slow actions and constant backpedaling of information created an air of distrust and confusion. As health institutions have revealed, an average person has no need for panic or immediate medical concerns. But while the eggs may be theoretically safe once again after a culling process, without future legislative actions, the government and the public are continuing to tread, perhaps even run, on egg shells that are bound to break when the weight becomes unsustainable.

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