The recent discovery of phenylbutazone in British horsemeat has caused outrage and concern. But how dangerous is the painkiller really for those who eat the medicated meat?
The horsemeat scandal is still rocking Europe. Products like frozen lasagna that were marked as containing beef but instead contained equine meat have been found all over the continent.
The most recent development involves phenylbutazone, a type of pain medication that can have serious side effects. Food controllers from the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) have found traces of bute, as it's also known, in eight horse carcasses intended for human consumption. Between three and six of them were exported to France before researchers found they contained the painkiller, and may have entered the food chain.
Phenylbutazone- rarely prescribed, restricted in use
In the United States, phenylbutazone has been off the market since the 1980s, and in Germany it's only prescribed for three very specific ailments: gout, chronic polyarthritis and the rare rheumatic Bekhterev's Disease, which can cause complete rigidity of the spine.
"It is definitely not an over-the-counter drug like Aspirin or Ibuprofen," Lutz Hein, head of the German Association of Pharmacology (DGP), told DW. "It cannot be used for anything mundane like muscle ache after working out."
Side effects of the drug include stomach and intestinal problems. Very rarely, bute can also lead to bone marrow damage. When this happens, the patient develops aplastic anemia, where the bone marrow can no longer produce blood cells. But, as Hein stresses, this is not the usual effect. "The risk for unwanted side effects is very low," he said.
Use in meat production illegal
Veterinarians use bute to treat infected muscles, joints, bones and tendons in horses. There are more modern pills on the market that also treat pain and fever, but bute has a strong argument in its favor. "It's cheap," said Hubertus Lutz, a veterinarian who has treated horses for 37 years, speaking with DW.
As vice-chair of the horse committee in the German Chamber of Veterinarians, Lutz is an expert on regulations concerning horsemeat. He says the discovery of bute in the British carcasses further adds to the scandal, because horses destined for slaughter are never supposed to receive a dose of bute in their lifetime.
"Every horse in Europe has an equine passport, which has to be updated after every purchase or medical treatment," Lutz said. "All medication must be listed in the passport. And slaughter horses mustn't receive any phenylbutazone."
This rule stands even though the drug has a short half-life in the equine body. After one day, more than 90 percent of the drug will have left the horse's system, according to Hein.
Lasagna vs. bute
There was still enough left in the British carcasses to test positive, however, and now horsemeat laced with phenylbutazone is on its way to French dinner tables. How harmful could the medicated meat be for those who eat it?
The highest concentration the FSA found in its test was 1.9 milligrams per one kilogram of meat. One dose prescribed to an adult patient is 200 milligrams, according to Hein. To reach that therapeutic dose would require eating 100 kilograms of meat with a bute concentration like that found by the FSA.
That's a lot of frozen lasagna, especially considering that not all mislabeled packages contain 100 percent pure horsemeat, but likely more of a mix of beef and horse, said Hein.
"One kilo of horsemeat is not going to give you an improvement of your arthritis symptoms," the pharmacologist joked. "But we don't know much about long-term consequences, so of course you can't say 'It doesn't matter if there's bute in all our food!'"