Two European agencies have been instructed to carry out a joint assessment of the risks to human health of the common anti-inflammatory horse drug, phenylbutazone.
The European Commission has asked the European Food Safety Authority and the European Medicines Agency to provide scientific advice on the issue by April 15 to help with decision-making over the recent horse meat contamination scandal which has hit Europe.
The request follows the recent identification of beef products contaminated with horse meat and the discovery of phenylbutazone – also known as bute – in a small number of horse carcasses intended for the food chain.
The news came as a consumer advocacy group in Portugal reported the discovery of phenylbutazone traces in two products. The Portuguese Consumer Defence Association said it had detected the drug in samples of a hamburger product and a meatball product. Both had been withdrawn earlier because of the presence of horse DNA.
Phenylbutazone, or bute, is banned from entering the human food chain because it can cause rare but serious adverse effects in humans, such as blood discrasia.
A zero limit for bute has been set for slaughter horses because scientists do not know the precise mechanism by which the drug can trigger these problems in humans.
Without that knowledge, scientists cannot be sure whether the tiniest exposure through eating tainted meat can trigger the disease, or whether longer or more significant exposure is required.
The European Commission said the two agencies would provide advice on any potential risk for consumers arising from the presence of phenylbutazone residues in horsemeat.
In this regard, the agencies will consider both the risk posed from consumption of horse meat itself, as well as that arising from other products illegally contaminated with horse meat.
The agencies have been asked to advise whether additional control options are needed to minimise any risks identified.
Phenylbutazone is used sparingly in human medicine for the treatment of severe inflammatory conditions where no other treatment is considered suitable. In veterinary medicine, its use is permitted in some European countries for pain relief and to reduce inflammation in non-food producing animals (dogs, sport horses).
It is not permitted to be used in the treatment of animals destined for the human food chain and any presence of the substance in food of animal origin therefore results from the illegal use of carcasses of treated horses.
On February 21, the European Commission adopted a co-ordinated plan on controls with regard to fraudulent practices in the marketing of beef products. This includes a testing plan for phenylbutazone in horse meat, the results of which will be reported regularly to the commission.
In Portugal, the Portuguese Consumer Defence Association said while the discovery of phenylbutazone in the two products had been in the “order of milligrams” and did not pose an immediate danger to human health, it indicated a potentially hazardous situation.
“The controversy around horse meat seems not merely to be a labelling problem, but also indicates a food safety problem,” the organisation said.
“These new findings highlight the need for the Portuguese authorities to undertake more frequent testing to evaluate the food safety of products.”