|Dutch Government getting "egg on their face"|
The World Health Organization says fipronil is "moderately hazardous" in large quantities, with potential danger to people's kidneys, liver and thyroid glands.
Food safety authorities in The Netherlands - where farmers are at the epicenter of the row - this week admitted they received an anonymous tip-off last November about the use of fipronil 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 may have contaminated both the chickens and the eggs," Dutch investigative journalist and food writer Marcel van Silfhout told AFP.
Had the NVWA, the Dutch food and goods watchdog, acted at that point, the latest trouble to hit the export-dependent Dutch food industry could have largely been avoided, said Van Silfhout, who penned a critical book about food safety and the NVWA in 2014.
Martin van den Berg, a professor and senior toxicologist at Utrecht University's Institute of Risk Assessment Sciences, added: "If there were investigators who were experts in this area and understood the impact of fipronil, maybe there would have been a different reaction."
But after consultations following the tip-off, the NVWA decided "there was no reason to think that fipronil would enter either eggs or chickens," two Dutch ministers said in a letter to parliament on Thursday.
Much of the current problem can be traced back to a growing loss of expertise; the NVWA and its predecessors have faced a series of cutbacks and trims since 2003, experts say.
The heavily burdened agency - which deals with food security but also general safety of goods - saw its permanent staff shrink from 3,700 full-time jobs in 2003 to 2,200 over the next decade, according to the Dutch Christian-based daily Trouw. Though the number is now back up slightly to about 2,600, many employees are not experts in their fields, according to Van Silfhout.
"There is no doubt that the problem started with the cutbacks since 2003," he said.
Since then, a series of food scandals to hit The Netherlands, including the outbreak of Q fever in 2007, which killed dozens of people, firmly laid the blame on the NVWA.
"A culture of soft enforcement took hold ... instead of clear independent inspections," Van Silfhout wrote. 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 the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad in a recent interview.
"The NVWA must stand up for public interest, for food security. Alas, the agency in reality is not a food watchdog, but an extension of economic policy," Van Vollenhoven said.
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