Unison, which represents meat inspectors in the UK, said that it was “particularly concerned” about the possibility of painkilling drug Phenylbutazone, also known as ‘bute’, entering the food chain.
“Not every horse slaughtered in the UK for human consumption is tested for bute, but when they are, tests can take several weeks to come back. The union is deeply concerned that this delay makes it difficult to recall all the infected meat," it said.
The union said that the risk of drugs entering the food chain was increased by the government’s decision last year to scrap the National Equine Database, which was set up in 2006 and kept track of all horses with UK passports.
It warned that there was a “real risk” that without a central database to keep track of the UK horse population, it would be possible for horses to be given two passports, with one tracking the animal’s medical history and another giving it a clean bill of health.
Ian Adderley, Unison national officer in the meat hygiene service, said: “We are deeply concerned that substances unfit for human consumption could be getting into the food chain and onto people’s plates. Not enough tests are done, and even when they are, the delayed reporting process makes it difficult to recall every piece of infected meat.
“Government cuts to the National Equine Database means that the horse meat passport system isn’t working, so consumers aren’t protected.
“The only way to make sure that horse meat is safe to eat is to increase inspection and testing of horse meat. Unison is calling for this to happen as a matter of urgency.”
The issue of horses treated with bute entering the food chain was raised in Commons by Environment Secretary Mary Creagh yesterday. The politician said that she had evidence that several horses slaughtered in UK abattoirs last year had tested positive for bute. “It is possible that those animals entered the human food chain,” she said.
The FSA released a statement admitting that bute had been found in meat from five horses slaughtered in the UK and sent for export last year. A further three tested positive for the drug but did not enter the food chain, and the Agency insisted that "none of the meat had been placed for sale on the UK market".
The FSA said it carried out testing to ensure horses presented for slaughter were fit for human consumption, with regular sampling and testing for phenylbutazone in horsemeat.