Horsemeat: Bute contamination of low concern to consumers, say authorities

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have said the illegal presence of the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, is of little concern to consumers, due to the low likelihood of residues and subsequent toxic effects.

Both EFSA and EMA were asked for the information, following the discovery of beef products adulterated with horsemeat and the identification of bute in some horse carcases illegally entering the food chain.

However, both organisations did say the drug should remain prohibited from entering the food chain and that it was not possible to set safe levels for the drug in meat products.

Reduce the risk

According to EFSA, both it and the EMA had delivered a series of recommendations to reduce the risk of bute entering the food chain. The list focused on measures to strengthen traceability and the two organisations reiterated that there was a need to improve monitoring and reporting of bute residue data.

They explained that better monitoring and reporting needed to be carried out with regards to the drug’s presence in both live animals, as well as the meat from animals.

Meanwhile, the organisations also revealed that the likelihood of a person eating horsemeat contaminated with bute and developing a related illness, was low – between two in a trillion and one in 100 million.


Further advice was given in order to reduce risk for consumers coming into contact with the drug illegally. It was proposed that EU-wide measures should be created in order to reduce the risk of consumers eating bute-tainted meat.

The proposed measures included the introduction of an identification system for horses, as well as harmonising checks on bute and improving the way things are reported and monitored.

Meanwhile, in a previous interview with MeatInfo.co.uk, Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS) James Marsden explained: “It is impossible to comment on the safety of horsemeat which is sold as beef, as if you do not know where the meat is from. Although it may test clear for bute in the tests carried out, who is to say that the next meal will test clear if you do not know what you are buying?”

Overlooked dangers

However, it has been claimed that bute is not the only possible drug threat to enter the food chain, said Dr Joanna Swabe of Humane Society International.

According to Swabe: “Testing for just one of the many drugs banned for use in animals that enter the food chain falls short of a precautionary and thorough approach to addressing fraud and ensuring food safety standards are met”.

Swabe released a statement yesterday after the European Commission (EC) issued its results of EU-wide horse DNA and bute tests. She explained that bute was not the only drug in horsemeat to pose a potential risk to human health and accused the EC of failing the public for not testing for other “banned veterinary drugs, which are commonly administered to horses”.