Fast facts about Korea’s egg crisis

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Fast facts about Korea’s egg crisis


With the discovery of additional Korean farms that use harmful pesticides on their chickens, public anxiety is building over whether egg consumption is safe.

Some are worried that eggs they already purchased might be contaminated, while others wonder if cooking eggs might remove pesticides.

To clear the air, the JoongAng Ilbo asked officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety; and Jeong Sang-hee, a professor at Hoseo University who teaches toxicology, to answer Korean consumers’ most pressing questions about the ongoing egg crisis.

Q. How can an egg be contaminated with pesticide?

In Korea, fipronil is banned from use on livestock raised for human consumption. But there has been continuous speculation that egg farms have been using fipronil to kill mites and other insects that live on chickens’ skin and hair.

The Korean government allows the use of 12 pesticides on farms, but they are not allowed to directly spray them on animals. They can only be used to decontaminate barns and stables.

However, even if the pesticides are not sprayed on animals, their remnants linger in the air and can still stick to animals’ skin and hair, and eventually, they can be absorbed into their internal organs. Water or food tainted with pesticide can also be absorbed by animals when they’re digested.

But the more fundamental reason for contamination lies in the poor system in which animals are raised in Korea. It is safe to say that 99 percent of egg farms keep egg-laying hens in cages smaller than a piece of A4 paper. Mites die when chickens rub their bodies in mud, but that’s not possible on Korean farms. Chickens are highly vulnerable to mites, hence the use of pesticides.

Is it okay to eat cooked eggs?

That is not guaranteed because fipronil does not get destroyed when cooked or boiled. At the moment, retailers including discount chains and convenience stores have stopped selling products that contain eggs, including sandwiches and dosirak [lunch sets].

It will take some time to verify the source of the tainted eggs. For that reason, it is not easy to conclude at the moment whether certain bread and snack products are safe, too.

Right now, the best choice would be not to eat any foods containing eggs. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has yet to trace any of the problematic eggs back to food manufacturing companies.

Is it okay to eat imported eggs?

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said eggs and chicken imported from the Netherlands were tainted with fipronil. It is especially important to be cautious about poultry imported from European countries because the eggs produced there have been recalled recently for containing pesticides, fipronil being the most publicized one.

The findings first surfaced in Belgium and expanded to the Netherlands, Germany, France and other parts of Western Europe.

Is it okay to eat eggs labeled as “eco-friendly?”

No, it is not safe. “Eco-friendly” only indicates whether the farm uses antibiotics or not. Even if farms don’t use antibiotics, they can use as many pesticides as they want.

Is it safe to eat chickens?

The farms with eggs containing pesticide only raise layer chickens. Farms that raise chickens for human consumption have not been subject to investigation, so there is the possibility that these farms have also used banned pesticides.

Another problem is that trichlorfon, another strong pesticide, only has a standard amount for beef and pork. (Chicken is the second-most popular meat in Korea after pork.)

What is the possibility of egg prices going up?

It is highly likely that egg prices will go up, especially with the egg supply unstable since the outbreak of bird flu earlier this year.

On Monday, the retail price of 30 eggs was 7,595 won ($6.65), a 42 percent year-on-year increase, according to the Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corporation. If the egg supply becomes more unstable because of pesticides, prices are destined to go up.

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