Test results from a European Union-wide food testing survey published on April 16th revealed that 0.5 percent of equine carcasses tested positive for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone (bute). Bute is a pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory drug used to treat horses, particularly for lameness. In the past, the drug was used for arthritis in humans, but was later found to have serious and often fatal consequences, such as a plastic anemia, a bone marrow disease, and agranulocytosis, a lowered white blood cell count.
The European Food Safety Authority and the European Medicines Agency jointly stated that the illegal presence of bute should be of low concern for consumers, as the likelihood of exposure and toxic effects is minimal. In 1997 however, the Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products assessed consumer safety for bute, and no maximum residue limits could be established.
The European-wide testing for bute was sparked by the revelation of the presence of horse DNA in beef products in the United Kingdom beginning on January 15, 2013. The horse meat scandal quickly spread throughout countries across Europe, indicating the interconnectedness and complexity of the current European food chain. Most recently, low levels of butewere found in corned beef being sold at Asda, a British subsidiary of Walmart.
The April testing also showed that less than five percent of all tested products contained horse DNA. Tonio Borg, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumers, viewed the findings as confirmation of “food fraud and not of food safety”.
According to the European Commission, in order to combat food fraud, the second half of 2013 will see a number of measures streamlining the current horse passport system and the adoption of new food labeling laws across the EU.