A NORTHERN Ireland-based food safety expert has told the News Letter he believes there is minimal risk to consumers from horse meat in the food chain.
However, the USPCA and Ulster Farmers’ Union have expressed scepticism that the meat in question will have adequate traceability to give it a clean bill of health.
The controversy surrounding contamination of products with horse meat has spread all over Europe.
Last month, Irish food inspectors announced they had found horse meat in some burgers stocked by a number of UK supermarket chains, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl.
Imported horse meat was also found at a processing plant in Newry but had not yet been used.
Last week, frozen foods firm Findus removed its beef lasagne off shelves after some were found to have up to 100 per cent horse meat in them.
But Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast, said yesterday he had minimal concerns.
“If the horse meat is prepared properly there is absolutely nothing wrong with it,” he said.
“This is not a food safety issue. The problem is that consumers are being duped.”
He said there was “no evidence yet” to suggest that harmful veterinary drug phenylbutazone – otherwise known as “bute” – had been found in any of the horse meat in question.
“If it is found I would think it would be in such small quantities that it would present a very, very low risk. The key question is whether the horses have been slaughtered in legitimate or backstreet abattoirs,” said Prof Elliott.
Asked yesterday if the horse meat in question was fit for human consumption, Ulster Farmers’ Union chief executive Clarke Black said one of the major reasons an animal will be refused at an abattoir is if its traceability is not right.
“For example, if cattle have lost both their tags when they arrive at the abattoir they can only be used for dog food,” he said.
“Vets check all animals for disease at abattoirs; the carcasses are inspected after slaughter for signs of lesions or disease; and there is a final test for illegal substances, such as growth promoters or excess antibiotics.
“Once all those checks are done, a carcass will be stamped as fit for human consumption.
“But I don’t imagine this horse meat has gone through these steps.
“I don’t suppose the traceability of livestock in Romania [suspected source of much of the horse meat] is comparable to what it is here. Our members are pretty angry right now because they are subjected to intensive regulation in the UK by comparison.”
A spokesman for the USPCA said the main reason horse meat could pose a problem would be the presence of the drug “bute”.
“It is commonly used in horses and remains in the carcass afterwards,” he said.
“Most old horses have had it at some time in their lives and when they do, the vet who administers it must then stamp the horse passport ‘unfit for human consumption’.
“Only since the Irish economy has collapsed have horses been sold for £10 at marts. Then someone gives the horse a new name, applies for a new passport and puts a new microchip in it.
“The sort of people behind this in Northern Ireland are those into diesel laundering and cigarette smuggling. Now that the heat has been turned up on this subject, they will doubtless be going back to diesel again.”
He added: “I think horses from Northern Ireland have undoubtedly ended up in the food chain. I would say the authorities here should be looking much closer to home for people to blame.”
But the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Professor Dame Sally Davies, said yesterday there was “nothing to suggest a safety risk to consumers who may have eaten the products”.
She added: “It’s understandable that people will be concerned, but it is important to emphasise that, even if ‘bute’ is found to be present at low levels, there is a very low risk indeed that it would cause any harm to health.”