Horsemeat - food fraud, not food safety


You may have noticed that I've spent quite a bit of my time reporting about horsemeat in recent days.

I'm the medical correspondent and so that might make you assume that there is a strong health angle to the horsemeat contamination scandal.

The evidence so far would suggest otherwise. This is a food fraud rather than a food safety issue.

Unlike most of the health stories I cover, no one has got ill or is likely to get ill as a result of the horsemeat contamination.

What about the equine painkiller bute? The Food Standards Agency says horse carcasses with traces of the anti-inflammatory have been exported and have been entering the food chain for some time.

This is clearly one of the many failures exposed by this affair.

Bute - or phenylbutazone - is licensed in humans to treat ankylosing spondylitis - a severe form of arthritis that affects the back.

In long-term use it carries a one in 30,000 risk of a serious side effect - the bone marrow disorder aplastic anaemia. It is no longer commonly prescribed and there hasn't been a case of this linked to the drug since at least 1985.

In order to get a single therapeutic dose of bute from horsemeat you'd need to eat 500-600 250g horse burgers. That's an awful lot of meat.

Of course there may be other drugs such as traces of antibiotics which might be found in unregulated horsemeat that enters the food chain.

The Chief Medical Officer, Prof Sally Davies, said the levels would be so low as not to represent a health risk, although she is deeply worried about the long-term threat of antibiotic resistance in the human and animal world. That is another issue.

If horsemeat was used which was rancid or infected that would present other potential health concerns but no-one has found evidence of this. Properly cooked meat would get rid of most pathogens.

There is of course what Prof Davies called the yuck factor. We all like to know what we are eating, and that we can trust the labels on our food.

Horsemeat is popular in mainland Europe, in countries like Italy, France and Belgium. It is a lean meat and I'm told used to be widely used overseas to build the strength of patients who were convalescing.

But for cultural reasons horsemeat is not popular in Britain and the current food scandal is unlikely to change that.

The results of tests which companies were ordered to carry out revealed that the vast majority of processed beef products are free of horsemeat.

But how many of us have unwittingly eaten horsemeat, and how long has the mislabelling of products been going on?

The chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, Catherine Brown, was candid: "These tests are a snapshot so we will never know the full extent - it is shocking."

The food industry still has to rebuild public confidence so that consumers feel they can trust the labels on supermarket shelves.

There is one definite health risk associated with the horsemeat affair. Eating processed meat products carry an increased long-term risk of cancer. If the horsemeat scandal encourages people to eat fewer meals of mass-produced burgers, lasagne and bolognese, it would be one positive outcome from this unpleasant scandal.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    During World War II everyone ate horsemeat. The country was starving.
    In fact I would be surprised if the average cat had to watch its step.
    There is little wrong with horsemeat, providing that it is not contaminated. It's just that in this country we have a 'thing' about horses, just as we have about chasing a fox to its horrible death.
    By the way, I wonder what Foxmeat is like?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Rebuild public confidence?

    You mean get us to open our wallets again! This is all about the greedy food industry maximising profit and to prove a point, we all know food prices will rise because of this. Also, if there's horsemeat in products it should be clearly labelled as such. It's the deceitfulness that has lost public confidence and I doubt that confidence can eve be rebuilt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    As with the banks and the newspapers, a free market with weak regulation puts the consumer and society at risk. We have been mis-sold in the big supermarkets's rush to seel cheap while making big profits.Self-regulation does not work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Methinks the entire industry doth try too hard to play down potential health risks. Fact is that the horsemeat was put into the food chain by criminals and they aren't particularly renowned for their adherance to food hygiene rules. We have to ask ourselves what have else could they have thrown into the mix that has not been tested for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I want my food to go through less hands before I buy it. I can only achieve this if I buy from a butcher who buys from an abattoir that slaughters local stock.
    Even then, I have no guarantee.

    But I trust a local butcher who relies on his own skills and reputation more than I trust supermarkets who are looking for every angle to profit

    The more hands that it passes through, the bigger the risk

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    What bothers me is that I used to assume mincing was just one or two perhaps older animals as the process would make tougher meet more tender .. now i learn it could be anything. I see pictures of huge vats with a dozen of our grazing friends in there, hooved or not, and I think .. grotesque. I need to respect my food, to welcome it into my body. I am not a dumping ground for flotsam and jetsam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    14. Andrew Morton
    Whose to say how long we've been eating horsemeat. It seems it's everywhere, we could have been eating it for decades - although I'm inclined to believe this debacle only occurred when the Tories de-regulated the import laws on meat, while sacking those on watch. Don't believe me, they even went against EU regulation which would probably have prevented this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @18. Enigmaticbiker

    As a vegetarian I am confident there is no carrot in my broccoli.


    But lettuce and spinach are very common EColi sources. Are you sure your vegetables are fresh and not re-processed? What does the label say?.... And is it a trustworthy source?

    Parsnip eaters shouldn't be too parsimonious about this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I live in the backwater of Scotland and as far as I can see there is a wee bit of hysteria here! I think people will buy and eat what they like to eat regardless whether it is processed or fresh, also price may dictate. Give a kid chicken nuggets or a wee bit of chicken breast what will they choose? Lets change how we eat and suppliers will change with us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    As a vegetarian I am confident there is no carrot in my broccoli.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @14 andrew morton
    It would be nice to stay on topic ... Food safety is another issue for another blog. This article deals with food fraud, including labelling, and mis-selling.

    You wouldn't like an article linking the rise in HIV cases corresponding to a lower condom usage to turn into a debate on the Catholic Church would you?

    Ok then.... Food fraud it is; We need labels, checks, and sanctions

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    However, it had made us allL

    *think a little more about our national diet of ready meals and perhaps we should make more effort to buy fresh and British

    *that even in this age of health and safety and regulation food manufacturers/ suppliers can still circumvent the law

    *insight into the long food chain

    *the nice pictures on the packet are more appealing when you don't know the ingredients

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The issue isn't whether or not it's horse meat, the issue is that it's not the meat that it's supposed to be. Thankfully it's only horse this time. It could be worse.

    I can't help feeling that the major supermarkets' relentless pursuit of cheap products and large margins created the perfect environment for this scandal to occur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    11. Horsemeat Tories
    So there are no real health problems other than the 1 in 30,000 chance of bone marrow anemia.

    Try reading that again. There is a 1 in 30000 chance of developing this through LONG TERM USE of bute. You need to eat 1000 affected quarter-pounders to get 1 shot of bute. ie the health risk from bute is negligible. This is simply NOT a health issue

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Band Wagon......... and JUMP!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Fergus, I suggest there is an issue in terms of food 'safety' which you have not addressed in this article, namely meat products, especially European sourced. They are a cross-contamination risk. Whilst deaths are rare (EColi etc) they do happen.

    Fergus, I do appreciate there is only 'so much' you can put into one piece on the Beeb website, especially on complex issues... Keep going!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    So there are no real health problems other than the 1 in 30,000 chance of bone marrow anemia. If 60,000,000 people are eating horsemeat, then 2,000 people will be affected.
    Then there's the other caveat:
    "Of course there may be other drugs such as traces of antibiotics which might be found in unregulated horsemeat that enters the food chain.."

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    One point I think most of us have over looked and most media outlets too.

    We have been mis-sold goods!

    I purchased a beef lasagne/burger/cottage pie and it was not beef.

    I am entitled to a refund as what was ordered has not been supplied?

    Everyone who has bought a beef burger from any supermarket should be able to claim!

    Oh dear! Good faith is not a defence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I cannot wait to try Beef

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A good article which articulates that it is the measures that restore 'trust' that will move this issue forward.

    If these episodes eventually mean greater clarity in:-

    - food labelling and sourcing detail
    -Supply Chain Quality Accountabilities
    - British food benefits (lower risk supply chain)
    - the EU Accountabilities
    - government agency roles
    - the sanctions for failure

    Then it's a start


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