There is Horsemeat in Beef; What about ‘Bute’ in Horsemeat?

Two questions immediately arise: How extensive is the presence of Phenylbutazone in horsemeat? If present, what are the concentration levels? The answers to these questions beg an even more important question: What are the potential exposure levels, and associated health risks, for consumers across Europe? Even though we don't yet have enough information to answer the first two questions, at Creme Global, we can still answer the third and most important question using realistic “What-If” scenarios and expert models.

Phenylbutazone or ‘Bute’, is commonly used by vets as a painkilling anti-inflammatory for horses. Horses that have been treated with the drug phenylbutazone are not allowed to enter the food chain. All horses treated with bute must have their passports stamped to show that they are unsuitable for the food chain. Bute was banned from use in the food chain because of its potential adverse effect in humans where it can cause rare cases of a serious blood disorder, aplastic anaemia, or bone-marrow failure. Bute was therefore banned from use in humans after it was found that about 1 person in 30,000 recipients suffered a serious side effect (FSA 2013). No safe level of its residue in meat has been defined.

Creme Global carried out extensive analysis and modelling of UK consumer exposure to Phenylbutazone under different scenarios. The food science and expert modelling team in Creme Global used consumption data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS): Year 1 and Year 2 of the Rolling Programme 2008-2010 to estimate the intake of processed beef products in the UK population (NDNS 2008-2010). The NDNS considers the diet of 1.5 to 94 year olds. The NDNS surveys contain the amount of each food consumed at a detailed level at each eating event.

Foods found to be contaminated with horsemeat were regrouped into four food groups: processed beef dishes/products, lasagne ready meals, burgers, and spaghetti bolognaise ready meals. Recipe fractions were applied to account for the actual beef component of composite dishes. Foods such as steak were excluded from the processed beef dishes/products group.

In the analysis carried out by the FSA (FSA 2013 (pdf)), 44 of the 4196 tested beef products, which means 1.05% of the cases, resulted positive to the horse meat presence (FSA 2013). This can be used to estimate the probability of horse meat presence in the beef products sold in the UK: therefore this percentage is applied in our scenarios to simulate the quantity of beef products with horse meat.

According to the analyses published so far, there are different concentrations of horse meat in the contaminated products: higher percentages were found in lasagne ready meals than burgers and spaghetti bolognaise ready meals. Different statistical distributions were therefore used to calculate the concentration of horse meat for different product types. Because the published analyses were related to burgers, lasagne ready meals and spaghetti bolognaise ready meals, only these three different products have their own distribution. The burgers distribution was also applied to the other processed beef products because most of the published data are related to the presence of horse meat in the burgers.

This is the general approach used to carry out an initial analysis about the ‘bute’ exposure of the UK population: it will be updated according to future information published about the horse meat contamination in beef products.

Phenylbutazone concentrations from literature were applied to the processed beef dish group and 2 scenarios were set up: Firstly concentrations were set to 5ug/kg assuming a worst case scenario, and secondly concentrations were applied at random values between 0 and 5 ug/kg. The percentage intake of all beef and processed beef products was calculated for the UK population. Results of mean daily intake per unit body weight for Phenylbutazone exposure from horse meat in the UK population were then calculated.

This work by Creme Global has uncovered results which are crucial to our understanding of the current situation and even more important for future scenarios and developments as more test results emerge on meat products across Europe (in particular the tests for Phenylbutazone).

When more information comes to light from testing around Europe (thereby answering the first two questions above), Creme Global will be able to immediately answer the most important question: “What are the potential exposure levels, and associated health risks, for consumers across Europe?” in even more detail.

The information generated by the Creme Global team is built on a track record of 14 years in food safety exposure assessment. We are working to expand these results generated for UK consumers to all European consumers. Please contact Creme Global if you would like to learn more about our findings.

Conor McGauran
+353 1 677 0071

About Creme Global:

What we Know to be True:

The amount of data being produced every day is growing exponentially. Data can help to inform better decisions. When decision makers have access to the right data, models and expertise in a form that they can understand, better decisions are made.Bad decisions have serious consequences: waste, financial loss, illness, etc. We believe that we can do better as a society; we have to do better.

Our Dream:

We dream of a world where everyone can make better decisions, based on real data and expert models. We have the expert models, specialised team and computing power to help.Creme Global:

Expert Models for Decision MakersTM


FSA – Beef lasagne products found with horse meat
FSA – Latest bute test results on horse carcasses
FSA – Third summary report on results of industry testing of meat products (pdf)

Written by Cronan McNamara on March 7 2013

Signup for our newsletter