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Dutch eggs: the controversy that shows another EU problem

Editorial Staff

The scandal over contaminated eggs originating in the Netherlands raises a serious question about one of the fundamental principles of the EU: the free movement of goods. Without taking sides one way or the other, we point out why this issue may be about eggs, but its ramifications are about something far more.

Here's why it's ironic that Brussels is in Belgium.

This is how the freedom of movement of goods works: it is a general rule that if a product is approved for sale in one EU country, then no other country may reject it. That is both the strength and the weakness of the CE mark which says that a product, once approved for sale in the EU, is to be accepted across all member states.

Accordingly, no state may impose its own quality control for example as to the paint that can be used on children's toys. It is this quest for standardisation that has led to arguments about the shape and size of bananas (in the Far East we have a huge range of types, sizes, shapes of bananas: shopping in the UK results in a far poorer selection) and the content of sausages (we British like ours with, approx, 15-20% fat, Germans want far less, and say that the British should not be allowed to use the word "sausage." It's also why farm-fresh eggs are often far larger, and more often double yolked, than those in supermarkets: believe it or not, the EU demands that eggs should be one of several standard sizes. See http://lakesfreerange.co.uk/eg...

The EU is mostly concerned with rules and compliance. Therefore, so long as eggs pass the grading tests, they cannot be rejected for sale across the EU.

Here's why this matters. Belgium alleges that the Netherlands knew about the contamination, from insecticides that are illegal for use on foodstuffs, some time ago but didn't tell anyone. The Netherlands denies knowing more than a very short time before making an announcement. It is not, at this stage, clear how the insecticide got into the eggs - whether through the food chain or through the production process - whichever it is, the problem is not isolated to a single hen-house. Someone, somewhere new or was reckless as to the use of the poison.

The EU can order that the Netherlands be isolated until the problem is resolved but the problem is that the eggs are certified, through delegated authority, for consumption in the EU. It follows that any country and, arguably, any supermarket that bans all eggs from the Netherlands is in breach of the EU rules on free movement of goods.

Belgium has banned Dutch eggs. The Netherlands and/or the EU would be able to demand an investigation into the Belgian ban. Across the EU, individual supermarket chains have announced a ban on Dutch eggs: they, too, could face investigation.

Such an investigation is unlikely because of the public health concerns and because the EU is probably not going to make the point of the various groups around Europe who are agitating for the EU's powers to be curtailed.

But, in the absence of public health or similar matters, such an investigation would be all-but inevitable. If one country said it was not going to purchase goods made in an EU country because of evidence that illegal migrant labour working in factories, that would be open to investigation. And if those products were made outside the EU, in what the EU pompously calls a "third country," but were legitimately marked with a CE stamp (such are often forged) then once they were introduced via a port anywhere in the EU, banning them by the objecting country would be near impossible.

So, public health and the moral standing of countries, corporations and, potentially, individuals is subjected to the orders from the EU, which is what most Anglophones in the EU refer to as "Brussels."

Which, students of irony will note, is in Belgium.