Tests for the horse painkiller “bute” in Findus food products have come back negative, agriculture minister David Heath told the House of Commons today.
But Mr Heath told MPs that traces of bute, which is potentially harmful to human health, were found in eight horse carcasses from UK abattoirs, three of which have entered the food chain in France.
The minister met representatives of British food retailers and suppliers yesterday and received assurances that “meaningful” results will be available tomorrow from tests designed to detect the presence of horsemeat in products labelled beef.
Mr Heath’s announcement followed the publication today of a scathing report condemning the Government’s “flat-footed” handling of the horsemeat scandal, which said its ability to respond had been weakened by cuts to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said the public appeared to have been “cynically and systematically duped” for financial gain by elements of the food industry - raising wider concerns about the safety of the contaminated products.
“It seems improbable that individuals prepared to pass horsemeat off as beef illegally are applying the high hygiene standards rightly required in the food production industry,” it said.
“We recommend that the Government and FSA undertake a broader spectrum of testing for products found to have the highest levels of contamination ... to provide assurances that there is no other non-bovine DNA or any other substances that could be harmful to human health present.”
The warning came as EU ministers agreed last night to the random testing of meat products across Europe for the horse anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone - or “bute” - as well as for horse DNA.
Mr Heath told the Commons: “The FSA’s most recent tests on the presence of bute in horses slaughtered in the UK checked 206 horse carcasses. Eight have come back positive. Three may have entered the food chain in France. The remaining five have not gone into the food chain.
“FSA are working with French authorities in an attempt to recall the meat from the food chain.”
He added: “The results of bute testing in withdrawn Findus food products have come back negative.”
Chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “Horsemeat containing phenylbutazone presents a very low risk to human health.
“Phenylbutazone, known as bute, is a commonly-used medicine in horses. It is also prescribed to some patients who are suffering from a severe form of arthritis.
“At the levels of bute that have been found, a person would have to eat 500-600 100% horsemeat burgers a day to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose. And it passes through the system fairly quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies.
“In patients who have been taking phenylbutazone as a medicine, there can be serious side-effects but these are rare. It is extremely unlikely that anyone who has eaten horsemeat containing bute will experience one of these side effects.”
The FSA said eight out of 206 horse carcasses checked had tested positive for bute.
Six, slaughtered by LJ Potter Partners at Stillman’s (Somerset) Ltd in Taunton, Somerset, were sent to France and “may have entered the food chain”.
The remaining two, slaughtered at High Peak Meat Exports Ltd in Nantwich, Cheshire, did not leave the slaughterhouse and have been destroyed.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said that although the drug was linked to side-effects in humans who took it, the risk was very low.
“If you ate 100% horse burgers of 250g, you would have to eat, in one day, more than 500 or 600 to get to a human dose,” she said.
“It would really be difficult to get up to a human dose.”
Catherine Brown, the FSA chief executive, drew vets and horse owners into the conspiracy behind horse meat with bute getting into the food chain.
She said that both had to sign horse passports if a horse was treated with the drug to ensure they were not sold on for human consumption.
“If both these people have done the right thing, horses with bute in don’t make their way into the food chain,” she said.
“Someone has always broken the rules.”