Egg Recall: Facts and Information are Essential

Europe was once again rocked by a food chain scandal over the summer and it involved an egg recall. In the past five years as the food chains become more and more interconnected, Europe has faced major food-related crises. Twenty-nine people were killed in 2011 E. coli outbreak, which originated at an organic sprouts farm in Germany. In 2013, the region was rocked by horse meat scandal where meat was advertised as beef, but was all horse meat or mixed with beef. As per regulations, it was not declared as an ingredient. Individuals were charged and prosecuted in the case as they were judged to be engaging in fraud.

Tainted Egg Recall

The most recent crisis is related to tainted eggs. The story broke in early August when the German grocery chain, Aldi, was the first grocer move forward with an egg recall. Other grocers in Germany including the German grocer, Lidl, pulled the products off the shelves. Other grocery store chains throughout Europe and Britain removed the eggs from the cases. Through an extensive tracking system where each egg has a stamped code on the shell, investigators were able to track the eggs to farms in The Netherlands and Belguim. The eggs were tainted with Fiprnil. It is a pest control insecticide to kill off fleas, lice, ticks, roaches, and mites. It is not allowed anywhere near animals in the food production chain, including chicken due to its highly toxic nature and can be absorbed by the skin or ingested orally. Eating large quantity of eggs contaminated by Fipronil can lead to liver, kidney and thyroid damage; however, those who did might have to deal with irritated eyes and skin, nausea and vomiting. It seems that this insecticide was somehow mixed in with a cleaning agent and sanitizer used on many poultry farms. According to reports, a farm alerted Belgian authorities to the issues; however, it was thought to be only one farm.  The Belgian government came under fire for not reporting the tainted eggs in June; however, they delayed reporting the contamination due to the case had been referred to a prosecutor over a fraud investigation.

The scope of the tainted eggs is huge, crossing borders and different governmental organizations throughout Europe. Eggs aren’t just ingested in their natural form but are used in everyday food products consumed by millions. This is a public health issue that could affect millions. And an economic issue. According to the New York Times, 20 percent of Dutch egg-laying chickens may be affected and will cost farmers millions. The damage to the reputation of the roughly 700-million-euro Dutch egg sector may take years to rebuild.

Emotion versus Logic

Communication is key in a crisis during a food-related crisis. Getting the correct facts and information out to the public as efficiently as possible is important. Health and safety of the community are paramount. How you react in the “Golden Hour” as the crisis unfolds sets the tone. Since the scope is huge, crossing borders and different governmental organizations throughout Europe getting the facts out quickly and then taking action is difficult since not everyone is going to agree. There will be finger pointing and attempts to cover one’s rear end by everyone involved.

While Belgian authorities were using logic in pursuing a fraud case against those involved they identified, they were doing a disservice to the consumers by not sharing the possible scope of the tainted the eggs.   Consumers have a right to be upset and concerned. This is an emotional issue for consumers and regardless of the logic and science that only eating eggs in large amounts will make you sick, people are not going to focus on that. They are going to focus on there were tainted eggs and they could have eaten them and fed them to their families.

The Dutch and German governments appear to have acted quickly as well as the grocers. Once basic facts were obtained, the egg recall went out and a ban took place until more information was obtained. The tracking systems worked as well as good investigative work is finding the source of the insecticide.

Facts are still outstanding as of publishing regarding who knew what and when. A delousing firm based in the Netherlands has been tied to many of the farms. The question arises as to did they know about the insecticide and then willing sprayed it? Or are they victims as well along with the dozens of farmers losing their livelihood?

A crisis of this level, it is so important to communicate in a truthful, meaningful, respectful manner. It is OK not to have the answers due to the situation being so fluid, but it is not OK to say nothing or start the blame game. The key is to keep communicating the facts as they are verified. It is important to keep in the forefront this is an emotional issue for consumers and farmers.

Governmental organizations, trade groups, and grocers have been effective in communication using all channels such as websites and social media, which has been updated regularly.  They have shown:
•    Competence and expertise by explaining the process in lay terms.
•    Honesty and openness while not over reassuring.
•    Commitment and dedication to telling people how it is going to be resolved.

Two areas of concern.

The one area I have seen lacking is empathy and caring by showing concern for the victims that includes consumers and producers. That said, it is very difficult for large governmental organizations to be warm and fuzzy. That is OK in this situation. They are focusing on public health and ensuring chickens that came in contact with the insecticide is isolated and tainted eggs out of the food chain.

The second concern was the lack of recall information on the German grocer websites. It was not a listed tab on the home pages. It is not uncommon regarding retail websites; however, in a crisis of this scope, it is important to make it easy for consumers to access information. This is when governmental and private organizations need to work together in getting the facts and information out.

The transition from an active crisis to recovery mode will take place shortly.

Lessons were learned over the five years on how to collaborate and communicate during a European-wide food recall. Lessons will continue to be learned through this egg recall.