Unscrambling Europe’s egg scandal

In recent years, the spotlight has been put on the hidden face of the food industry, especially when it comes to animal breeding. The conditions in which animals are kept has always been something controversial, but we are also discovering that practices, like the use of chemical products affect our health.

The 1990s scare over mad cow disease was only a prelude to a series of more and more worrying discoveries. For example, the use of antibiotics that made their way into the food chain, and the use of carcinogenic products like sodium nitrite (E250) in meat transformation. It is all a part of a process to produce intensively, and at a cheap price, products that must last a long time in our refrigerator. Last summer, it was the turn of egg industry to reveal its secrets.

The scandal broke in mid-August. Millions of eggs were removed from supermarket shelves in several European countries. Sanitary controls revealed that some packs contained a high amount of fipronil, a forbidden insecticide that was used in egg production to free chickens from their parasites. Authorities investigated Dutch farms. They revealed that two people were involved in spreading the hazardous product directly onto chickens. Rapidly the two suspects are arrested and the situation, according to the European Commission, is under control. But is that really true?

Actually, when we think about this scandal in a more global context, those poisoned eggs only represent a drop in the ocean. And while consumers can constantly check their egg boxes to know if they belong to the suspect packs, the reality is that eggs are everywhere in our eating habits. Sauces, pastries, fresh pastas and prepared dishes, the use of egg in the food industry is extremely diverse… and we do not know where those eggs come from.

To be sold to the industry, eggs are broken, and the white part is separated from the yellow part. Those egg products are sold in different forms, even as a spray for baker to make their croissants more brilliant. In France, there are only a few factories that control this process of egg breaking. They break millions of eggs each year. Yet they always refused to answer journalists’ questions during the scandal. A silence that seems to say a lot about this industry.

Some chickens are raised in cramped and unhealthy conditions.

In fact, the demand for eggs is too strong in comparison with national capacity; so industrial leaders look for eggs in the European market. This leads to competition between producers, and this competition results in a race for the bottom, and this race has heavy consequences. Eggs are produced intensively and this results in a lack of space for chickens, who are unable to spread their wings. Most of those animals are treated with antibiotics that are then consumed by humans. In some farms, chicks are cruelly de-beaked (the beak is a sensitive part of their body) to avoid injuries due to inherent lack of space.

Yet, authorities always minimize the negative effects of this intensive production. For instance, the French agriculture minister, Stéphane Travers, declared on a TV show that those poisoned eggs have no consequences for human health. There are a lot of things that can be discussed about the practices in the food industry and each month, new scandals are discovered. Although there are a lot of uncertainties, what is sure is that the consumer always loses. On the one hand, there is a lack of transparency about the origin of some products in our daily food. On the other hand, the space for bargaining to improve the quality of what we eat is reduced.

Indeed, the European Commission takes most of the decisions concerning both trace-ability and breeding conditions. For instance, very recently, a new authorization concerning the use of glyphosate, a dangerous herbicide, will soon be renewed for a period of five to seven years. The problem is that the Commission faces active lobbying from the food industry, and civil society doesn’t really have the power to stop that negative influence. Citizens have only the possibility to mobilize themselves through petitions, but they cannot participate in the decision-making process.

Then, what can we do at our level? Fortunately, it’s possible to check the quality of the egg you buy, by reading at the code that you can find on each egg.  The first number that appears indicate if your egg is organic (0), free-range (1), from indoor-housing (2), or cage farming (3). Even if it is, of course, not the magic solution, trying to favour the 0 or the 1 category should provide a minimum of quality.

For those who have directly the opportunity, buying eggs directly to little farmers is the guarantee of an excellent quality, and it also favours local produce. If you have the time, baking your own cakes is also a good alternative to be sure of the ingredients and quality.

Some of this article is based on the episode of “Les Terriens du dimanche” broadcast on 10 September 2017.

Victor Krikorian

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