The egg contamination crisis exposes a problem caused by a combination of government laxity and the lack of professional ethics on the part of farmers. A bigger cause for concern is that the egg industry might not be the only one with such a problem.
As expected, the number of egg farms affected by the nationwide crisis is growing day by day, with more than 60 farms having been found to have produced eggs tainted by harmful pesticides.
The egg farms stretch from as north as Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, down to the southern city of Sunchang, North Jeolla Province. A government official said most of the farms were found to have used either bifenthrin or fipronil to remove mites from hens. Eggs from a farm in Sunchang had bifenthrin 21 times the permissible level.
The crisis is causing a food scare the like of which the nation has rarely seen. Eggs were removed from the shelves of major retail stores, egg farms had been slapped with a temporary comprehensive ban on shipments and schools and military units took eggs away from meals for students and soldiers.
The crisis, which comes on the heels of the avian flu epidemic that hit the chicken industry hard, is also heavily affecting other related industries like bakery and confectionary.
As President Moon Jae-in aptly gave instruction, the most urgent thing is to inspect all the farms across the country and eggs that had already been put on the market. This is not an easy task to do as there are a total of 1,239 egg farms in the country and numerous outlets selling eggs.
After the inspections government officials said that they gave the go-ahead to about 241 farms for the supply of eggs, which accounts for about 25 percent of the total national supply.
Certainly, the earlier the egg supply returns to normal, the better it will be for the people and industries. But the fact that officials found traces of pesticides in some eggs collected from retail shops show that, for now, authorities should focus on finding out sources of tainted eggs and keeping them away from consumers.
As with similar food scares, the crisis should be blamed on the government. The fact that a considerable number of farms that were found to have produced contaminated eggs had been government-certified as an “environment-friendly” farm is evidence of where the government’s food management system stands.
The government had given the certificate to 780 or 73 percent of the 1,060 farms with at least 3,000 hens.
More disturbing is that there had already been warnings about pesticide contamination in eggs. In April this year, a university professor who questioned a sample group of egg farmers found that 61 percent of them were using pesticides to fight mites on hens.
The Consumers Union of Korea, a civic activist group, also found traces of pesticides in some eggs and asked authorities to conduct joint inspections. None at the Agriculture Ministry or the Food and Drug Safety Ministry bothered to pay heed to the request.
It was not until the news about the egg contamination cases in Europe hit the country when officials started to look into the possibility of similar cases.
Still, the chief of the Food and Drug Safety Ministry was saying as late as last week that authorities had been monitoring the industry well and that local eggs were safe to eat.
Farmers too cannot avoid blame as they -- seeking easier, bigger profits and/or ignoring the health hazards to egg consumers -- sprayed the toxic pesticides to hens. Some of them lacked a minimum level of knowledge about toxic materials they used.
A farmer was quoted as saying that he used fipronil at the suggestion of his neighbor who praised its effects on killing mites. His veterinarian also told him it was all right.
Although belated, Moon stepped in as the crisis escalated, ordering officials to conduct a sweeping examination of all egg farms across the country and review the government’s food management system.
It also would be good if the egg crisis awakens government officials, producers and merchants to the need to overhaul the food safety system and upgrade professional ethics. Food safety should never be compromised.