Tainted US horse meat puts world consumers at risk: welfare body

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Horse meat European union Horse

US horse meat tainted with the illegal chemical phenylbutazone (bute) is putting consumers worldwide at risk of illness, according an equine welfare organisation located in the country.

European Union (EU) regulation No.504/2008 requires that all horses in Europe hold a ‘passport’ to allow traceability of veterinary records in particular.

The European Commission (EC) said that horses designated as ‘athletes’, and not intended for human consumption, should hold records of use of bute as an potent analgesic, to guarantee the absence of contaminated meat from the food chain.

In particular, EU regulations on drug residues in horse meat intended for human consumption define the risk to children in particular of eating horse meat containing banned substances such as bute.

Aplastic anemia in children

A recent Irish research paper in the Irish Veterinary Journal (Vol. 63 No.10) warned: “The difficulty with phenylbutazone is that it, or its metabolite, can cause aplastic anemia in children.

“If a child were to consumer an animal-based product containing even the minutest amount of bute or its metabolite then the child may develop aplastic anemia.”

If an EU audit of a country such as Ireland discovered evidence of bute use on animals not excluded from the food chain, the product would immediately lose it EU-wide license, the researchers warned.

“One child’s bone marrow illness could be traced to a meat product that could be traced to an owner and a vet who prescribed bute,”​ they added.

By 2013, all third country importers will have to comply with EU traceability standards under the regulation.

And although US horses are not reared and regulated for food use, the Equine Welfare Alliance (EWA) based in that country warned that the US has no mechanism for removing animals from the food chain that have received banned substances.

The Humane Society for the United States estimates that around 100,000 horses are exported from the US for slaughter every year, with the bulk of meat produced sent to satisfy “high-end consumers” ​in countries such as Belgium and Japan.

And the EWA said that the US had no way to trace horses back to owners or veterinarians that allowed the animals in question to enter the food chain.

Shipped for slaughter

Both Canada and Mexico were instituting tracking programmes based on radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging technology to comply with the EU regulation, but the EWA noted that the US had scrapped its own National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in 2010.

EWA spokeswoman John Holland told FoodProductionDaily.com: “Horses have always been shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. The closing of plants [that killed horses at plants in Texas and Illinois for export abroad until 2007] didn’t save US horses from slaughter as the industry began shipping all horses across the borders.”

The EWA is calling for US congress to pass the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act 2011 to provide further regulatory protection for US horses and consumers worldwide.

This seeks to amend current legislation, and prohibit the shipping, transportation, moving, devliery, receipt, possession, purchase, selling or donation of horses or other equines to be slaughtered for human consumption.

Vicki Tobin, also from the EWA, said that the act should be passed: “Congress must start taking food safety seriously and realise the risk to the US for knowingly allowing unsafe food into foreign markets.

“These animals should never enter the food chain.”

In a 2010 paper for the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, Marini et al. tracked 18 race horses to slaughter that had been dosed with bute, which the researchers described as, “arguably the most potent and effective pain-relieving agent available in equine medicine”.

Their study found that the phenylbutazone was taken up in injured tissues, and was later released back into the animals’ blood streams as tissues healed, while there was no acceptable drug washout period.

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