Coffee House

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

24 January 2013

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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  • Olaf

    Oh FFS. You do know that half of the things you eat have known carcinogenic compounds inside them? Mustard, toast, grilled meat, tea and many many more. Your body is actually able to deal with a reasonable level of toxic chemicals routinely. Yes there are problems with the quality of controls within the food processing industry. This will not be helped by an uninformed scientifically illiterate politician going off on yet another shrill panicked rant.

  • Davidh

    Don’t be silly. As the minister said, horse passports have nothing to do with it.

    Even if the horses that got into the burgers came from Britain, they would have got there illegally and nobody would have checked or recorded their passport details.

    Not sure it’s worth tax payers’ money keeping a “National Equine Database”. Probably a good thing it was abolished. What about databases for dogs, cats, cows, sheep? If the government wasn’t doing half the things it doesn’t really need to be doing then there’d be more money for the important things and austerity might take care of itself.

  • eeore

    Surely the issue is that horse meat was being sold as beef?

    Worrying about what may have possibly been in the horse meat is not the issue.

    Besides if the producer was willing break the law with regard to mislabelling food, I doubt they going to be overly concerned about passports.

    And the real issue is how much will the companies involved be fined, and who will go to jail.

    • stickywicket

      Surely both things are an issue.

      Horse meat was in a “beef” product. That is bad enough.

      But horse-meat is not produced for human consumption in the UK, so surely there has to be a worry over the quality of that meat.

      But yes, Tesco and its suppliers need to be very heavily fined, and the colluders imprisoned.

      • ButcombeMan

        If one were sitting in Tesco, worrying about reputational management (presumably someone has this job-not that there is any evidence of the person doing it) and one had to do a risk assement. Contamination of food supplies by suppliers, especially of the cheaper products would be right at the top and at the top of the likely products would be prepared meat products and Thai or Brasilian chickens and imported juices, especially Chionese apple juice. Is is not difficult stuff, yet Tesco (and others) apparently failed.

        The meat and “pink slime” trade, has been none of the most corrupt trades around the world, for years and years. Tesco must have known that.

        Can I suggest Tesco particularly failed because despite all its enormous financial power it got distracted from core business under Terry Leahy.

        Supplying good value wholesome food is at the heart of what Tesco ought to be about.

        • eeore

          Tesco used to be the company that was the most honest on such matters. But one only has to shop there to see how it has gone down the M&S route to see how this has happened.

      • eeore

        Linking cancer to this story is simply adding a scare element, that acts as a dog whistle to control freak types who are obsessed with what poor people eat.

        The real issue is that inflation has reached such a stage that suppliers can no longer fulfill their contracts without resorting to subterfuge. Horse passports is just misdirection for those that think the police state can solve everything.

  • In2minds

    And people laugh at the quest for organic food!

  • Tom Tom

    The horses were from rgentina and Brazil so take a gueess as to what was in them. Brazil has such wonderful drugs in chickens used in prepared meals here that it is a a surprise that the FAS (food) is as useless as the FSA (finance)

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