03/07/2013 2:35PM

European agencies to assess health risk of bute residues in horsemeat

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The European Commission has asked two agencies to assess the risks that phenylbutazone residues in horsemeat might pose to human health. The request comes as Europe is dealing with a growing scandal in which beef products have been found to contain horsemeat illegally and regulators have found bute in some horse carcasses intended for human consumption.

The European Food Safety Authority and the European Medicines Agency will carry out a joint assessment of bute and will “use all available scientific evidence and consider data and results of ongoing testing of horsemeat in member states as these become available,” according to a release issued Thursday by both agencies.

The agencies will “consider both the risk posed from consumption of horsemeat itself as well as that arising from other products illegally contaminated with horsemeat,” according to the release, and they will advise on whether additional controls are necessary to minimize any risks to the public.

Spurred by the horsemeat scandal, the EC on Feb. 21 adopted measures including a bute-testing plan that calls for testing one sample for every 50 tons of horsemeat and requires member states to carry out at least five tests that will be reported to the EC.

Anti-slaughter advocates have long contended that bute-contaminated horsemeat is entering the human food chain, because the anti-inflammatory is so widely used in horses. They say that current testing often is inadequate and that equine identification documents, which accompany slaughter-bound horses and are used partly to disclose veterinary information such as medications, are too easily falsified as horse dealers and slaughterhouse contract buyers move horses rapidly to slaughter.

Slaughterhouse officials have countered that their testing identifies contamination by such medications as bute—medications which rule horses out of the food chain entirely under EU regulations—and that carcasses showing residues are not allowed into the human food chain.

In their joint release, the European Food Safety Authority and European Medicines Agency noted that bute had been found in “a small number of horse carcasses intended for the food chain.” Information accompanying the agencies’ release called bute “toxic to bone marrow” and said that “exposure to this substance has been associated with aplastic anemia, a rare but serious blood disorder in which the body’s bone marrow does not make enough new blood cells.” The agencies intend to re-examine data concerning bute’s potential to damage cell DNA and cause cancer.

The two agencies are to provide their scientific advice to the EC by April 15.

Although there are no legal equine slaughterhouses currently operating in the United States, horses routinely are slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, often for export to Europe.