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.