UK vets have 'repeatedly raised concerns' over bute in food

Horse receiving injection One scientist called racehorses from the US "walking pharmacies"

An independent veterinary committee had "repeatedly expressed concern" about a drug found in UK horsemeat destined for export, the BBC has learned.

The discovery of horsemeat in UK foodstuffs is raising big concerns that UK testing regimes are not sufficient.

There are worries that if unregulated horsemeat is substituted for beef it could expose people to a drug called phenylbutazone - often called "bute".

Once used as an anti-inflammatory, its toxicity to some people led to a ban.

The drug in rare cases caused a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia.

But it is still used widely to treat horses. Once treated these animals are not supposed to enter the food chain.

'Big trade'

In the UK about 8,000 horses a year are slaughtered for human consumption. This meat is then exported to other European countries. Under EU regulations, it must be tested for a range of substances including bute.

Last July the UK's Veterinary Residues Committee, which carries out that testing, issued a report. In it, they showed that among 60 samples of horsemeat destined for export in 2010, there were five positive results for bute.

The independent committee said that it had "repeatedly expressed concern over residues of phenylbutazone entering the food chain".

Start Quote

The potential is there for quite significant contamination and residues, given that the route by which this meat is moving is very far from watertight.”

End Quote Mark Jones Humane Society International

"The number has gone up a little over the past three or four years," committee chairman Dr Dorothy Craig told BBC News.

"We're finding a rate of about 5%. It's banned, so the number of non-compliant samples should be zero."

Since 2005, horses are required by law to have a "passport" that contains a declaration as to whether the horse is intended for human consumption.

These passports are also used to record if an animal has been treated with bute; most of the UK positives have come from difficulties with these documents.

"That's really where the problems come from - either a genuine error or where there's deliberate fraud going on," said Dr Craig.

In June 2012, the European Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers issued its summary of an audit of abbatoirs in Italy - the EU's biggest consumer of horsemeat. In it, they noted "numerous shortcomings were detected in the passports".

But the global nature of the horsemeat business is also causing problems in tracing exposure to bute.

Using bute on horses for human consumption is banned in the EU, but thousands of tonnes of horsemeat is imported from the US, Canada and Mexico where practices are different.

Many of the animals killed for food in these countries were once racehorses, and the use of bute at racetracks across the US is so widespread that one scientist speaking to the New York Times called these horses "walking pharmacies".

Research published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2010 highlighted this risk, and EU officials warned last year about serious problems in verifying whether horses killed in Mexico were drug-free.

"This is a very big trade," says Mark Jones from Humane Society International.

"The potential is there for quite significant contamination and residues, given that the route by which this meat is moving is very far from watertight."

Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent


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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    It really comes as no surprise to me that something like this should happen.
    We've rightly demanded that our own food producers abide by all sorts of animal welfare rules but this increases the cost so the big manufacturers go overseas for their supplies where the same standards (and costs) do not apply. If we have these regulations we should also protect our farmers from unfair competition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Horse passports what a joke. Bute and other medications are handed out and never entered on the passport, and if somebody doesnt like what they see on a passport its thrown away and a new one is started its that easy

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    2. simplelogic:
    If we leave the EU we'll be outside their tarriff barrier so our exports will cost them more, causing unemployment here, and our imports from there will cost more and put prices up.
    Those are big prices to pay for a vain hope that being outside the EU will protect us against mis-labelled meat and veterinary drugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    6. "Its like BSE all over again - i'll never forget seeing the that Tory MP feeding his daughter a hamburger."

    No traces of Pig DNA in that hamburger!

    We need to buy meat that is less processed and a recognisable cut. It will cost more, so eat less meat and bulk meals with other foods such as mushrooms.

    Non-vegies all need to know basic meat preparation - then we might know what we are eating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    We have a relative who developed Aplastic Anaemia and is lucky to be alive. Bone Marrow Transplant was necessary and there have been after effects. Pretty devastating. Horse meat in itself is not a problem if they are bred for the food chain but it's the regulation of it and the need for horse 'passports' that needs strengthening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    8 Minutes ago

    @9 Honest_Mistakes: The film Soylent Green was about cannibalism; the last time I checked, I was not of equine origin. :)
    For the time being, it's horse. But how long till they substitute that for something else.

    The food chain must be preserved for the health of humanity. Allow a little toxic chemical now and you'll end up with a lot more later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    11. Jan "I haven't eaten meat or fish since 2006"

    Don't be so smug unless you know exactly where your veg comes from. Who knows what contaminated soil it may be grown in or how it has been handled or stored !

    NO matter what we eat - fruit, veg, meat - we've little idea of where it comes from ( unless yo grow your own of course - and even then do yo know what's in your soil ?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    You are what you eat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    @9 Honest_Mistakes: The film Soylent Green was about cannibalism; the last time I checked, I was not of equine origin. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The police need to take action against the criminals passing off horse meat as beef.

    Gather evidence, and prosecute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I wonder how much bute or other horse horse treatments have ended up in beefburgers?

    Hopefully, those food retailers and wholesalers currently testing for dead horse in their products will also test for various horse drugs in circumstances where horse meat is discovered. The criminals passing off horsemeat as beef won't worry about the source of the horses!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I haven't eaten meat or fish since 2006

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    As in a few other sectors, we need to find those that are running these factories, and prosecute them. People in high places are supposed to be paid a large amount due to the amount of responsibility they have.
    Clearly there have been some massive failings here and people need to be punnished. Even if they didn't know about it - it's their job to know what's going on in their business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    How long before we are told that Soylent Green is a factual documentary? I really wouldn't be surprised - next zombies? For those unfamiliar with the movie or is it a documentary ? You decide!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Perhaps it might be a good idea for veterinarians to research and use alternative medications that will not cause problems to anyone who might eat an animal that they treat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Far too many middle men in big food! I worked in a meat processing plant some years ago.The conveyor belt would be stopped to change not the sausages coming down it,but the labels stating whose sausage it was,and it wasn't our brand,we were just a manufacturer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    What else haven't we been told about ? and we have the tory minister saying its all ok !

    Its like BSE all over again - i'll never forget seeing the that Tory MP feeding his daughter a hamburger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Another thing The Food Standards Agency did nothing about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Clearly another reason people should consider eating less meat, and possibly of having non-meat days as a vegetarian or even vegan, on a holy day of whatever your religion is or if your atheist become a 'Buddhist'.
    At least say a small prayer over any sentient being that has died to feed your body.
    So we at least should respect other living creatures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    To add the inhumane nature of slaughter in Mexico and Poland would make your average consumer's blood run cold. There are REAL welfare issues (and not just for horses)
    Plus the UK passport system for horses is a laughing stock. It is no guarantee of identity and therefore neither a guarantee that a horse is free from substances that should prevent it from entering the food chain.


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