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How could carcinogenic drugs have got into the food chain? Ask Defra

24 January 2013

5:28 PM

24 January 2013

5:28 PM

Shadow Defra minister Mary Creagh told MPs today about her fears that a carcinogenic drug commonly used as an anti-inflammatory in horses could have entered the human food chain. Speaking in the Commons, 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.’

As I wrote on Coffee House on Tuesday, it was Defra’s decision last autumn to abolish the National Equine Database which has got us into this mess. Previously, the database contained details of all British horses and their passport details, enabling people to trace all the drugs a horse has ever been given. But when Creagh brought up the topic of horse passports in last week’s statement on the horsemeat burger scandal, David Heath, the Farming Minister, dismissed any claims that horse passports were relevant to the story.

The drug in question is phenylbutazone – commonly known as ‘bute’ – and is widely used in the equine industry. In the 40s the drug was sold in the States as an alternative for aspirin in humans. However, it was taken off the market within a couple of years as in addition to being carcinogenic in humans, it also causes bone marrow suppression and liver problems.

It’s one thing if horsemeat has managed to make its way into the food chain, but it’s a whole different ballgame if the meat was never intended for human consumption. As a nation, we don’t breed horses to be eaten, so any British horses which make it into the food chain could have been contaminated. If we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, the only thing to do is to make sure that we can trace British horses, even after death. And, of course, ensure that what’s on the label reflects what’s in the product.

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