In the wake of the horse meat scandal in Europe, last month the European Commission began testing thousands of products and has now revealed that less than 5% of the products had horse DNA. A much smaller fraction—0.5%—of the horse meat run through separate tests contained bute—a veterinary drug banned for humans to eat.
“Today’s findings have confirmed that this is a matter of food fraud and not of food safety. Restoring the trust and confidence of European consumers and trading partners in our food chain following this fraudulent labeling scandal is now of vital importance for the European economy given that the food sector is the largest single economic sector in the EU,” said Commissioner for Health and Consumers Tonio Borg. “In the coming months, the Commission will propose to strengthen the controls along the food chain in line with lessons learned.”
The purpose of the coordinated testing plan was two-fold: firstly, controls were to be carried out, mainly at retail level, of food destined for the end consumer and marketed as containing beef, to detect the presence of unlabeled horse meat; and secondly, to test for the possible presence of bute in horse meat. The number of tests that were carried out to detect the extent of the mislabeling varied between 10–150 samples depending on the size of the EU country and consumption habits. The criteria for the bute sampling carried out were one sample for every 50 tons of horse meat with a minimum of five tests. Some member states exceeded the number of tests recommended by the Commission.
In total, 7,259 tests were carried out in the 27 EU countries, of which 4,144 tested for the presence of horse meat DNA and 3,115 tested for the presence of phenylbutazone (bute). Of those tests, 193 revealed positive traces of horse meat DNA (4.66%), and 16 showed positive traces of bute (0.51%). In addition, member states reported another 7,951 tests for the presence of horse meat DNA performed by food business operators (producers, processors, and distributors). Of these, 110 contained horse meat DNA (1.38%). The positive samples found in relation to horse meat DNA combined with the very low levels of bute detected represents a small part of the overall production in the EU.
These results correspond with the joint statement published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on April 15, 2013, which concluded that the risks associated to bute were of “low concern for consumers due to the low likelihood of exposure and the overall low likelihood of toxic effects and that, on a given day, the probability of a consumer being both susceptible to developing aplastic anaemia and being exposed to phenylbutazone was estimated to range approximately from 2 in a trillion to 1 in 100 million.”
Next, the European Commission and member state experts will meet on April 19 to discuss whether this EU coordinated monitoring plan to investigate fraudulent practices and to enhance consumer confidence following the recent mislabeling of beef products containing horse meat should be extended.