Authorities Studying How Bute in Horsemeat Affects Humans

European authorities will soon be tackling the question of how phenylbutazone in horsemeat could affect the humans that consume it, according to the scientific journal of the British Veterinary Association.

A “joint scientific assessment of the risks” of consuming phenylbutazone—commonly known as bute—will be performed by two European agencies at the request of the European Commission (EC), the Veterinary Record reported March 23. The agencies—the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA)—received the EC request on March 7.

The recent European horsemeat scandal has raised questions about the health implications of consuming horsemeat that might be tainted with bute. Clear studies of its effects in this situation thus far have not been carried out.

In February, authorities in the United Kingdom found that eight of 206 tested horse carcasses were positive for bute, CNN reported. Two were destroyed, but the other six were sold to France for human consumption.

Dame Sally Davies, the U.K.’s chief medical officer, recently assured the British public that risks were extremely low, according to an article in the British Medical Journal. A person would need to eat more than 500 pure horsemeat burgers a day to get close to acquiring dangerous amounts of phenylbutazone, the article said Davies stated.

Meanwhile, a British parliament member (MP) and environmental secretary has declared that consuming bute in horsemeat could cause cancer to humans, according to the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. Labour Party MP Mary Creagh addressed Britian’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) directly about having allowed “carcinogenic” horsemeat to enter the food chain.

Subsequently, Britian’s Daily Mail published a headline warning readers of a “cancer-causing drug found in U.K. abattoirs (slaughterhouses).”

A decree by Britian’s FSA was then issued in February to require that every individual horse carcass be tested for the presence of bute prior to entering the food chain, according to the FSA website. Results are available within 48 hours.

However, the global European reaction appears less extreme. European Union member nations are required, as of last month, to test for the presence of bute only once for every 50 metric tons (about 110,000 pounds) of horsemeat, according to the Veterinary Record.

Phenylbutazone was originally introduced as a pain killer for humans in 1949, according to the EFSA. However, today it is used in humans only as a second option for certain arthritic patients whose pain is not relieved through other primary treatments. It is known to be toxic to bone marrow could cause a rare but serious blood condition known as aplastic anaemia (a disease in which bone marrow and the blood stem cells that reside there are damaged). Its capacity to cause cancer or damage DNA in humans is not yet known, but these issues are scheduled to be part of the upcoming risk assessment, the EFSA reported.

A joint statement following the risk assessment is expected to be released by the European agencies next month, the Veterinary Record reported.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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