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, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The supply situation is so muddied that even retailers hardly have a clue how many steps their products have been through before it reaches the shelves. And until this point none of them seemed to bothered about it, just as long as people kept buying it. Complicity, complacency, pick your adjective, but once again the public have been treated like mugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    33 hereword WHo do we sue? First why are you suing? The responsibility lies with who you bought goods off. You should approach them first, not sue. As I understand it all shops are asking customers to return affected goods and they will refund so I am not really sure what the issue is.
    |Arguably if you can evidence you have eaten misdescribed goods there is also a case for a refund.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    RE 53 JFH

    'As omnivores we can and should eat anything we can get into our mouth that tastes wholesome and takes our fancy! That is how to remain healthy'

    Utter Rubbish. I became a vegetarian 20 years ago and my general health and, especially my digestion have been better than my meat eating friends and relatives. Undigested meat can stay in your body for months! We are very poor omnivores.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Yet another reason to be a vegetarian - (organic if you can) .....but watch out for daffodil bulbs masquerading as onions.... lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Meat price has risen substantially, but many pre-prepared meat products meals have not risen in price.
    Over the past few years many many prepared food products have changed ingredients as producers seek to reduce costs & maintain profits.
    Where many items had no glutton/lactose, they do now as these are cheaper ingredients.

    If you buy 4 meat pies for £1, what DO YOU expect for £1?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    As a chef of 35 years it never ceases to amaze me what people will put into their bodies. Fraud thrives on ignorance; twice I've confronted "ye old country butchers" selling pork loin as fillet and Aberdeen Angus from Argentina! Cooking is not about TV entertainment! it's about doing it,living it,in the home and at school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    When people can get 5 times the revenue from Horsemeat by calling it Beef, there is only one conclusion - FRAUD.

    The people from the slaughterhouses to the food producers must be prosecuted and jailed. There is no alternative. The Supermarkets must be fined for their negligence.

    Again the British consumer has been massively RIPPED OFF.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I agree with respondents who say that buying local is best.

    Even under the scarcity of war-time rationing, lettuce cropped at the market-garden in the morning would be on our table by lunch-time.

    Our local butcher still sells far better quality meat than the supermarkets and it is 30% cheaper. Sadly, the supermarkets have wiped out our local greengrocers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    54spam spam spam spam

    The most important ingredient in everything is humans, & MOST humans commonly cheat at one thing or another & excuse themselves by trivialising it
    Without further evidence, how do we know what you just said is not a cheat? Come on now, no excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

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

    So Fergus are you suggesting that the fraudsters are going to be bothered about any food safety aspect which may coincidentally occur whilst they are filling their boots?


    Just because no health issues have come to light at the present it does not follow that none will crop up in future!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Conglomerates can afford to get caught selling trash. It's cheaper than maintaining quality. Sales will be down for a month or two but'll soon pick up, and they can introduce a more expensive "quality line" for the more gullible.
    Local butchers and grocers can't afford such games. My local butcher knows the names of the local farmers that supply him. Supporting your local economy is good for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    If I understand it correctly, when the BSE/CJD scare broke, the government introduced regulations and documentation so that every calf was tracked from birth to slaughter. With such a scheme, how can contamination of beef products occur? If the scheme has been quietly dropped when did this occur and who was responsible?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The media and politicians keep plugging the line that 'this is a fraud issue, not a food safety issue'. Really? Are they not asking us to trust criminals?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    @47.spam spam spam spam

    Yes, but how would you know the dogs/cats were safe to eat, at the time loads of pets were going missing.

    Point is, illegal meat has NO traceability, has no history, has NO protection for consumers.

    The most important ingredient in everything is humans, & MOST humans commonly cheat at one thing or another & excuse themselves by trivialising it

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    So you have become a vegetarian? Think about that choice.

    The major source of medicines on the planet is plants. They provide everything from natural aspirin to hugely corrosive anti-cancer drugs - and you still think vegetables are 'safe'!

    As omnivores we can and should eat anything we can get into our mouth that tastes wholesome and takes our fancy! That is how to remain healthy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    44.Big John the Red - ".............Whatever happened to traceability?"

    UK rules on that are much, much stricter than in other countries. Buy British (not British brands necessarily, but food from British origins) is your best bet.

    Espcially if you buy from your local buthcher who can usually tell you exactly which farm in the locale that days beef/lamb/pork etc came from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    @47.spam spam spam spam

    "I remember years ago, in Stevenage, a Chinese takaway got caught with a freezer full of dogs/cats, which people had munched on for some time."

    But then, in all honesty, does it really matter? When you get down to basics, it's all protein..."
    (I'll grant the 'yuk factor' - personally I won't touch jellied eels, for instance.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The horse meat scandal has done what many so-called inquiries into the UK supermarkets signally failed to do; it has fully exposed the fact that they ruthlessly screw their suppliers in pursuit of the cheapest (and nastiest?) possible ingredients. Tesco and Asda used to regularly announce multimillion pound bonuses for their staffs, something their suppliers didn't get to enjoy. Go figure!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Our digestive systems have developed overt millennia to eat and extract nourishment from a very large range of substances.

    Our sometimes irrational (or pre-refrigeration) prejudices prevent us from eating some sources of nourishment - however, whilst I am not advocating eating everything in the zoo, history has shown us we can safely do so.

    Overcome your prejudices - and eat horse etc.!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Companies are so big and powerful that they are untouchable and they shamelessly exploit that fact. Globalisation and monopolisation are the disgusting (literally) consequences of their pathological greed.


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