Horsemeat: Origins of horsemeat scandal remain inconclusive

Almost six months since the breaking of the horsemeat scandal, the government is still unable to identify definitively where the problem stemmed from.

David Heath, Minister of State for Agriculture, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee today: “I don’t think I am in a position to give you a definitive answer,” about the point in which the horsemeat contamination entered the UK food chain. “These are complex cases,” he added.

In what was the last of EFRA’s evidence sessions into the horsemeat scandal, Heath also explained that the police had accumulated a lot of evidence about the contamination issue and said the process had demonstrated the “complexity” of supply chains across Europe. He also highlighted that there were a large number of different operatives to consider in the investigation – “some of whom may have been aware of what they were buying and some not”.

Regarding prosecutions and the investigation, Food Standards Agency (FSA) director of operations Andrew Rhodes explained that such information was with the police and said: “There is not much more I can say from the FSA on that, because it is a police matter.”

Highest levels of bute traces in the UK

Meanwhile EFRA Committee member and MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie asked Heath how he accounted for the fact that the UK had the largest number of positive tests for bute – the veterinary drug known as phenylbutazone and used on horses – across the European Union.

Heath said it was very difficult to give a definitive answer to that question, adding: “It may be associated with the level of testing we’ve engaged in.” He said when bute was considered a possible issue, the UK started testing for it, but said he was not aware of any other countries carrying out similar tests.

When asked about further research into what other countries were doing regarding bute contamination, he said there were conversations, but drew on the chief medical officer’s advice, which stated that the levels of bute discovered were not harmful to health. “Having said that, the system ought to prevent bute getting into the human food chain via horsemeat and it is clearly failing to do that at the moment.”

He said this was one of the reasons discussions for improvements were being carried out and hoped a new passport process and database would be available soon. “We are pressing for an early resolution for this,” he added.

Higher levels of testing

However, despite Heath’s comment that the level of positive tests for bute could be attributed to more testing in the UK, Committee chair Anne McIntosh asked if there was concern over the number of positive results found. Heath replied: “As I said earlier, any positive tests means somebody somewhere has not been sufficiently assiduous in maintaining a passport in the form it should be.”  

Rhodes added that since the positive release system had been implemented, nothing containing bute had been released into the food chain. “The current test positive rate is less than 2% of horses being presented for slaughter,” he said, adding none of them should test positive because horses treated with bute should not be presented for slaughter.

However, he reiterated that nothing slaughtered in the UK that showed a positive test result for bute was entering the UK food chain, because of the release system. “And we are the only ones in Europe to operate such a system,” added Rhodes.