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".

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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."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    The sheer number of humans on the planet are changing the environment.
    Within that population a few make big money manufacturing products that are highly dangerous to humans and the environment in which we live.

    If they could get away with it, Melamine would be added to milk and all sorts of other food products.

    The only way to prevent it is to randomly test all things and enforce laws of safety

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Does it affect humans ? I say neigh !

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I am not going to eat horse meat!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I love this demand for criminal enquiry into this event. Don't get me wrong, I agree it should be done. However without the FSS this case will have to get into line with all the rest, and be financially reviewed as well!
    And that ladies and gentlemen may take some time and a lot of budgeting too

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    This is the whole point of ensuring we know what is in our food, unregulated meat (or any kind) into our food chain is bad, and now we have a risk all be it a small one that could potentially harm people.

    Heads need to roll over this, and not the PBI's or usual suspects. There needs to be a serious Criminal enquiry and serious prosecutions against suppliers and supermarkets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Even if some (or even all) of the horsemeat in these products contained bute, the levels would be far too low for consumers' health to be affected. The side effects observed in clinical trials resulted from high doses over long periods. Bute in the human food chain is a reasonable concern if you're eating horsemeat daily for years. Not if you have the occasional couple of horse-meat hamburgers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    In line with the Ad campaign against smoking (every 15 cigarettes can cause a mutation which could lead to cancer", we do not know what would be considered a hazardous dose of Bute. Even though the intake from eating meat from a horse treated with the drug would be way below the dose once given to humans, there is still a raised statistical probability of developing a carcinoma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    As long as we have commercial food production, we are going to have instances of contamination and adulteration. More and more stringent regulations will increase the cost of food, and new contaminants and different methods of adulteration will be discovered.
    Be pragmatic about this: it isn't a 'scandal', it's a crime. Investigate, charge the guilty, and don't get hysterical about 'food safety'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    @Howesyourview, you seem to be an expert in the subject. I'm sure that your own findings and research must have contradicted that of Kari et al. (1995), who found a rare type of kidney cancer in rats (13 out of 100) and an increased rate of liver cancer in male rats fed 150 and 300 mg/kg body weight of phenylbutazone for 2 years. Tennant (1993) listed phenylbutazone as a non-mutagenic carcinogen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I'm sorry but can the vegetarians get off their high horse please. I don't care what people eat, or do, or even believe. But rubbing our faces in this doesn't win you brownie points.
    We as a species are omnivores, our teeth and digestive tracts are designed for such variation.
    If it wasn't for cooked meat, we probably wouldn't have had the evolutionary edge of a bigger brain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Until I read this I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Now I know. Just goes to show that none of us should take our food for granted and we should all think about what we are prepared to pay for having confidence in what we eat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Time to start testing ALL food imports for safety, better still lets try to become self sufficient in as many foods as possible, stop building and start ploughing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I'm not a vegetarian, but have sympathy for their view. Best to cook meals yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I'm glad I've been Vegetarian for the past 35 years

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The passports for horses and passports for cattle system seems to have totally broken down.
    We don't even know what species is going into these products, let alone which individual animal.
    Where's the protection from contamination with Bute or BSE these passports are supposed to give us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @32. neathguard
    Supermarkets driven down the price? Well yes, I suppose they have driven down what they pay to the producer - pity they have put up the price they charge to the consumer, pocketing the massive difference.
    Use your market, use your butcher, use your farm shop. Its easy, cheap and nicer

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    It's not like a lot of those cheap quick and easy meals are health for you anyway. They can contain nasty things too. Horse meat just adds a little variety to your meal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    If they can't easily catch Lance Armstrong after hundreds of tests, what chance do they have of properly detecting what drugs end up in processed meat?

    I'll stick to buying real cuts of meat (when we can afford to) and not eat the leftovers that has been made into something "tasty" by adding numerous food enhancers, which are then marketed towards my kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    If there's a risk that any food product is not entirely what the label says it is - then it is possible. And the industrial scale production and processing makes it more likely that accidents like this will happen. "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong"

    So, we have most likely been eating contaminated products for many years now.

    Why the long face?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Successive governments have made cutbacks on food inspections and been applauded for it. Chickens coming home to roost seems appropriate here.


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