Two men and one woman accused of being at the basis of Belgium’s biggest-ever food fraud have been sentenced by a court in Antwerp.
The three were among seven accused and four companies charged with using the insecticide Fipronil in the cleaning of poultry farms. The pollution that was caused as a result led to the destruction of two million hens and 77 million eggs that were polluted with the chemical.
Fipronil, also known as Fluocyanobenpyrazole, is commonly used in flea control products for pets, and for cockroach traps in homes. It can also be used as pest control on commercial turf and golf courses.
The chemical is classified by the World Health Organisation as a Class II moderately hazardous pesticide. It has been implicated in colony collapse disorder, in which entire hives of bees die off suddenly.
The scandal in Belgium began when in 2017, Fipronil was discovered in hen’s eggs intended for human consumption.
The problem was traced back to a company based in Zandhoven, Agro Remijsen, run by Patrick Remijsen but set up in the name of his wife Christine. The company had used Fipronil to wipe out pests in batteries used by laying hens, which is strictly forbidden.
Hundreds of poultry farms in Belgium and the Netherlands – where another company was also using Fipronil – had to close down, cull their hens and destroy all eggs. Some of those farms are still trying to recover from the losses.
Remijsen, the court heard, failed to inform the poultry farmers of the contents of the product he was using, which was indeed effective in controlling pests, were it not for the small problem of contamination with a banned product.
According to witnesses, he told prospective customers the product his company used was reinforced with menthol and eucalyptus.
At trial, Remijsen himself was sentenced to three years in prison, two of them suspended. In normal circumstances, he will not have to serve a day in prison. The prosecution had asked for four years, as well as three years for his wife and for the main customer for his product. The two co-accused were each sentenced to 18 months suspended.
However they were fined heavily: Remijsen was fined €200,000 and the two others €20,000 each. All fines also suspended.
However the civil side of the trial will not be suspended. The trio have to pay total damages of €23 million – to the federal food safety agency, the Flemish waste management company OVAM, and a number of private claimants.
In addition, the Remijsens will see a total of €315,000 of their own private property, including a house in Turkey, seized by the court. According to their lawyer, the couple are considering an appeal.
The remainder of those brought to trial were acquitted for lack of evidence.