Cancer causing horse painkiller may have entered the food chain

A drug which can cause cancer in humans may have inadvertently entered the UK food chain through horse meat slaughtered in the country last year, a Labour MP claims.

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh told the Commons that she had obtained clear evidence showing that ‘several’ horses slaughtered in the UK during 2012 had tested positive for the carcinogen phenylbutazone, which is also known as ‘bute’.

Probably the most common horse medication used, bute is a highly effective anti-inflammatory painkiller administered to horses, injected intravenously or given orally to horses as a powder or paste. However, the drug has been found to cause bone marrow and liver problems in humans, supressing white blood cell production.

As Ms Creagh addressed the Commons yesterday, she said: “I am in receipt of evidence showing that several horses slaughtered in UK abattoirs last year tested positive for phenylbutazone, or bute, a drug which causes cancer in humans and is banned from the human food chain. It is possible that those animals entered the human food chain.”

Agriculture minister David Heath replied to Creagh and claimed that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had thoroughly inspected all the meat to guarantee it was fit for human consumption, saying: “The Food Standards Agency carry out checks in slaughterhouses to ensure that equine animals presented for slaughter are fit for human consumption in the same way as they do for cattle, sheep and other animals. In addition, the FSA carry out subsequent testing for phenylbutazone and other veterinary medicines in meat from horses slaughtered in this country. Where positive results for phenylbutazone are found, the FSA investigates and takes follow-up action to trace the meat.”

However this prompted more questions from Ms Creagh who subsequently wanted to know whether or not Mr Heath knew about the problem. She said: “I’m astonished that you have not raised this and I think the public have a right to know.”

Creagh wasn’t finished though, adding it was a ‘very serious development’ and demanded action to ensure that ‘illegal and carcinogenic horse meat stops entering the human food chain’.

Amy Cope, FSA communications manager, commented: “Horses which have been treated with phenylbutazone or “bute” are not allowed to enter the food chain. In 2012, the FSA identified five cases where horses returned non-compliant results. None of the meat had been placed for sale on the UK market. Where the meat had been exported to other countries, the relevant food safety authorities were informed. During the recent horse meat incident, the FSAI [Ireland] checked for the presence of phenylbutazone and the samples came back negative.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it has not yet been suggested the issue is connected to the horse meat scandal that erupted earlier this month when traces of horse meat were discovered in the burgers of retailers Tesco, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl and Dunnes in Ireland. An alert was only raised after Irish food watchdogs found equine and porcine DNA during sample checks at the Silvercrest Foods processing plant in County Monaghan, Ireland.

This resulted in Tesco withdrawing all its own-brand frozen burger products from shelves in Britain as it emerged that some had contained a shocking 29% horse meat while Iceland, Lidl and Aldi also pulled burgers from sale after they too were found to contain horse meat. It is thought that suppliers in the Netherlands and Spain could be the cause for incorrectly labelled ingredients that have led to the scandal that forced Tesco to submit full-page apologies in several national newspapers for selling the contaminated beef burgers.

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