Whenever we post a story about the ongoing horse meat scandal in the U.K. and Ireland there are a number comments from people suggesting that the the British should be fine with eating horsemeat, as many other nations see no problem with eating meat from the animal.
It's true, of course, that many European nations do eat horsemeat. A person from London can easily jump on a plane and within a few hours be eating a horsemeat pizza in Slovenia, for example.
But the scandal is bigger than just a matter of cultural distaste about eating horses — it carries serious health concerns.
One worrying aspect of the latest report of horsemeat in frozen lasagnas being sold in the U.K. is the news that the meat is being tested for the veterinary drug bute, which is a known human health risk.
The BBC's Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, reports that bute, also known as phenylbutazone, is toxic to humans — and can cause a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia. It is used as an anti-inflammatory for horses, but once treated these animals are not supposed to join the food chain.
The U.K. itself slaughters around 8,000 horses a year to be exported to other countries for food. These horses are tested before they go, but McGrath reports that UK's Veterinary Residues Committee warned just last year that these tests were not thorough enough, and small but noticeable amounts of bute seemed to be getting through.
Other countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have different rules, and may export horses that have been treated with bute.
So, while horse meat itself is intrinsically no less safe than beef, the drugs within in it that give cause for concern. Given that the contamination in the U.K. seems to have been caused by what the UK's Food Standard Authority describes as "criminal and fraudulent activity", its extremely worrying that the meat — or really anything that shouldn't be there — can make its way into the UK's food chain without anyone noticing.
Also, bear in mind that the U.K. was the center of the "mad cow disease" scandal, which ultimately saw over 4 million cows slaughtered in a bid to eradicate the disease, and almost 200 cases of its human form, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Given that history, food chain-related paranoia is pretty understandable.
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