Horse drug may be in food chain, EU urges DNA tests

AFP and AP, BRUSSELS and LONDON

Fri, Feb 15, 2013 - Page 1

Three horse carcasses that tested positive for the equine drug bute may have entered the human food chain in France, the British government said yesterday.

British Environment Minister David Heath told the House of Commons that eight horses from British abattoirs had tested positive for bute, and “three may have entered the food chain in France. The remaining five have not gone into the food chain.”

Heath said frozen lasagna sold under the Findus label in Britain had tested negative for bute. The product was removed from store shelves last week after tests found some of the meals contained more than 60 percent horsemeat.

Horsemeat itself is not dangerous to eat, but bute, or phenylbutazone, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory used on horses, is considered harmful to human health if ingested.

Authorities across Europe are testing for the drug after horsemeat was found in food products labeled as beef.

The EU’s executive called in Europe’s law enforcers and urged bloc-wide DNA food testing on Wednesday to restore consumer confidence in a widening scandal over horsemeat-tainted processed food.

“We do not know exactly what has gone wrong,” British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson told reporters after emergency talks in Brussels and amid growing public anger over mislabeled meat products.

As he prepared to drive to the headquarters of the Europol law enforcement agency in The Hague, Netherlands, he said: “We have to get to the bottom of these cases.”

France and Switzerland have now joined Britain in finding horsemeat in frozen beef lasagne, while supermarket chains in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have pulled millions of frozen ready meals off the shelves.

The row has exposed the complex web of suppliers involved in the food chain, raising public fears about health, as well as suspicions of fraud.

British police on Tuesday raided two meat plants in their search for the source of horsemeat found in kebabs and burgers, and Paterson warned in Brussels: “This is a criminal conspiracy to defraud the public.”

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg, who joined eight EU nations at Wednesday’s talks, said Brussels was calling on all 27 EU states to carry out DNA tests on beef products to see if they contained horsemeat.

The European Commission would also urge checks in all European establishments handling raw horsemeat for phenylbutazone.

“No one has the right to label as beef something that is not beef,” he said after the talks involving Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Romania, Poland and Sweden. “Someone will be held responsible, even criminally responsible.”

Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney, who chaired the meeting, said: “It has become very clear that this is a European problem that has to be dealt with Europe-wide. We need to find out who is responsible, how it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

EU ministers had favored slapping a country-of-origin tag on processed meat products, which is currently only required on fresh meats, Coveney said.

Since Britain last week discovered horsemeat in frozen lasagne — made by French firm Comigel and sold under the Findus label — supermarkets across Europe have pulled millions of frozen ready meals from the shelves.