Even before Korea got over the AI shock that occurred early this year, another shocking news regarding the “Fipronil Eggs Contamination” situation has jeopardized the country again. First discovered in mid-August, the contaminated eggs contained pesticides in amounts that exceeded the limit, thus being designated for massive waste disposal at numerous domestic egg farms. Adding to the shock were eggs detected for Fipronil contamination, despite having been certified by the eco-friendly HACCP. As a temporary expedient, the government announced the names of producers whose egg farms were banned from egg distribution, allowing consumers to check which eggs to eat/not eat. The government also conducted additional nationwide investigations, but only intensified consumer complaints due to repeated errors. So exactly how and why did eggs, one of the most beloved “perfect” foods, become the icon of distrust?
Root of the Problem
The outbreak of this scandal did not suddenly come from nowhere. In other words, it was preventable – only that people did not care enough. On August 17th of 2016, Nocut News had already publicized news regarding the indiscriminate use of pesticides at several domestic egg farms. Contrary to free-range chickens, those raised in iron cages no bigger than 0.05 square meters cannot get rid of mites by themselves. Therefore, it is mandatory for farmers to spray low concentration pesticides in empty cages or in their surroundings. However, it was reported that some irresponsible farmers sprayed pesticides directly at the chickens, even using unapproved pesticides of high toxicity. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) simply tolerated such illegal usage and did not care to go through investigation procedures at all. All the Ministry did was to upload a “Pesticide Lists and Precautions” article on the Korea Poultry Association website and an empty promise to open a crisis meeting regarding the situation. However, even after two months at the parliamentary inspection of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) on October 7th of 2016, Minister Son Mun-gi only mentioned similar answers, that the investigation was still “ongoing.”
Was there improvement on the issue afterwards, then? Not really, considering actions taken by the related Ministries even on the verge of the scandal’s outbreak. The AI shock that broke out at the end of 2016 forced the Korean government to import more than 300 million eggs from European and East Asian countries starting in January 2017. The problem is, related Ministries not only omitted processes for pesticide inspection, but also remained ignorant about the imported eggs’ distribution channels. Despite such irresponsible attitudes shown by governmental authorities, the new MFDS Minister Ryu Yeung-jin carelessly confirmed that neither the import of contaminated foreign eggs nor distribution of unhealthy domestic eggs could have been possible. Eventually, the MAF first announced the detection of excessive Fipronil in the eggs of a farm in Gyeonggi-do, Yangju-si on National Liberation Day. It is predicted that the unhygienic usage of pesticides would have directly accumulated Fipronil inside the chickens’ bodies, influencing the produced eggs as well. Since then, other chemicals such as Pyridaben and Etoxazole were additionally discovered inside contaminated eggs.
*** Fipronil: What Is It? ***
Fipronil, the main cause of the scandal, was first used on 1993 for the agricultural purpose of eliminating pests such as fleas or mites. The pesticide kills insects by shutting off their GABA channels (neurotransmitters) and its effectiveness is proved by how extensively it was used during the years. Although lacking deadly poison, Fipronil can induce nausea, dizziness, and in severe cases lead to damage to the kidneys or the liver if it is accumulated inside human bodies. WHO (World Health Organization) designated Fipronil as a second-level severity pesticide. Moreover, it is illegal to spray Fipronil in farms where livestock that people eat are raised.
What the Incident Implies
After Fipronil-contaminated eggs were first detected in Korea, about 50 domestic egg farms were marked “inappropriate.” Disposal of inedible eggs was carried out on a nationwide scale, seizing the distribution and usage of eggs in wholesale/retail industries, manufacturing businesses, and numerous restaurants. From August 16th, the egg distribution of “safe” farms were normalized, and on August 21st, the government provided a statement that the intake of Fipronil eggs did not seriously harm anyone’s health. In fact, recent research even showed that intake even up to 126 eggs is all right for humans. It seems the scandal could potentially end up as another incident, just like the past Mad Cow Disease syndrome that once swept through Korean society, stained by irresponsible instigations and untruthful rumors.
Despite all these, however, it would not be proper to approach this sensational issue in an “At least those eggs didn’t kill us” attitude, considering how dumbfoundingly this case built up to be. Fipronil eggs are not avoided because they are “lethal” or “deadly”; this is more an issue about how shocking eggs, an everyday product, could have led or have led to health implications and more specifically, how the health-related dangers held such minor importance in the Korean society for so long. It will never be too early to carefully discuss the matter, thoroughly examining the causes so as to minimize any chances a similar case may happen in the future.
Careless Ignorance on Safety
First, Korean society must be alert against safety ignorance. On November of 2015, the MFDS was preparing to announce a plan of countermeasures to secure the safety of processed egg products. This was in response to the already controversial issue of unhygienic egg supervision and distribution, only until the Civil Administration Office (when secretary Woo Byeong-woo was in charge) put off the announcement. The then Minister of the MFDS, Kim Seung-hee, explained that the decision was for some specific modifications. Unfortunately, such claims were not convincing enough, as there was no real amendment made afterwards. It would be more accurate to say the plan was utterly “ignored.” Furthermore, the new MFDS Minister Ryu Yeung-jin sought forgiveness for his past thoughtless interviews (mentioned above), resorting to excuses such as “They were done to relieve the public’s anxiety.” But again, the seriousness of this scandal makes it difficult to cover up with some petty excuses. The scandal influenced too many people. People who have continuously eaten contaminated eggs, innocent farmers witch-hunted due to some unscrupulous ones, and wholesalers/retailers who must have encountered enormous losses from surging recall demands – all of them were victimized. The government must not repeat the same mistakes and must be aware of how dangerous their ignorance on safety is - if they can.
Vulnerable to Crisis
Then, did the government cope with the scandal well? No, not at all. Although this was a predicted disaster, the government hurried in its post-scandal inspections, only arousing more complaints from the public. The MAF confidently announced it will block further distribution of any contaminated eggs thorough inspections. But it turned out one of the MAF officers contacted target egg farms in advance, receiving specially sorted out eggs – definitely a violation of rules. Moreover, the MAF and the MFDS made absurd mistakes as well, while reporting to media on its nationwide inspection results. On the 18th of August, they missed detecting two of the inappropriate egg farms and decided to update a new list afterwards. However, even the new list was erroneous in that it mistook ten of the appropriate egg farms as inappropriate. The MAF spokesperson explained it was because of “lack of sleep!” No wonder the public expressed so much frustration.
What Measure Should Be Taken to Prevent Similar Cases?
As a man-made disaster, the Fipronil Eggs Contamination scandal means personnel reformation on both the MAF and the MFDS is required. Especially the newly appointed MFDS Minister Ryu Yeung-jin was criticized for his irresponsible and ambiguous public interviews that explicitly showed how unknowledgeable he was on such an important issue. It looks like the Ministries need more professional leadership.
In addition, there was a shocking inspection report that 59% of inappropriate egg farms were in fact those that received HACCP certification. So here comes another need for reformation. The system in which retired Agricultural Products Quality Management Service (APQMC) officers dominate private companies that certify HACCP, if not reformed, will only continue to downgrade the credibility HACCP holds. Unless the link between the APQMC and those private companies is eradicated, HACCP has no meaning. Also, it seems necessary to increase official HACCP inspection numbers since it is currently done only once a year. The problem with this system is that egg farmers only care to manage their farms at inspection periods. Therefore, inspection ought to be ran on a quarterly basis or unexpectedly, so as to minimize chances of system abuse.
As always, such catastrophic scandals seem to strike us without forewarning. The government, for the concealment of this issue for such a long period, must accept the harsh criticism that will follow. The unscrupulous egg farmers take part of the guilt as well. The attitude government and farmers held towards a matter connected directly to public health is undeniably an insult towards consumers. Until the situation finally normalizes, the public will reasonably demand for valid explanations and apologies. < 저작권자 © 중앙헤럴드 무단전재 및 재배포금지 >