Horse meat: answer to your questions

Last updated:
8 February 2013
This page will be updated as the investigation continues.
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What has happened?

In November 2012, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) told us they were developing authenticity methods and considering a survey. On 15 January FSAI issued a press release reporting that some of the meat products that had been tested, including beef burgers, contained horse and pig DNA.

To date, the Agency has tested thousands of products throughout the UK to find out just how widespread the problem is.

What is the Agency doing about this?

The FSA has launched an urgent investigation into this issue and is working closely with other Government departments, local authorities and the food industry.

As part of this investigation, the Agency ordered food businesses to conduct authenticity (in other words, check the content is listed accurately on the label) tests on all beef products, such as beef burgers, meatballs and lasagne, and provide the results to the FSA. The tests were for the presence of horse meat.

So far, over five thousand results have been submitted to the FSA and the information shows that the contamination of beef products with horse meat remains limited to a few products.

The Agency also asked local authorities to carry out a UK-wide survey of food authenticity in processed meat products, expanding the survey to ensure that a wider range of products were sampled. The surveys have now been completed and you can find the results on our website.

The European Commission asked member states to carry out another strand of testing checking for the presence of horse DNA in foods marketed or labelled as containing beef.

In the UK, 150 samples of beef products were taken for the survey, and none of the products were found to contain horse meat at or above the reporting threshold. We have also ordered any companies and local authorities finding horse meat at or above 1% in the products, to test for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, known as bute.

How did the horse meat get into the products?

The evidence we have about the two cases of the significant amount of horse meat in burgers and lasagne, points to either gross negligence or deliberate contamination in the food chain. This is why we have already involved the police, both here and in Europe. The investigation is ongoing.

Why are you asking the companies to do the tests?

Food companies are legally responsible for the food safety of the food they sell and the accuracy of its labelling and it’s important that in the light of these incidents that people can have confidence in the food they buy. That’s why we’ve asked the food industry to do this testing. The laboratories doing the tests are independent and will share the results with both the company doing the testing and the Food Standards Agency.

In addition to the testing by industry, we are also carrying out a large scale survey through local authorities to provide information about the possible presence of horse or pig DNA in a range of beef products available in the UK.

What should I do if I have already eaten the products named?

Horse meat is not a risk in itself. However, if the horses have illegally got into the food chain, they may contain the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, or 'bute'. 'Bute' is not allowed in the food chain because in humans it can cause rare cases of a serious blood disorder, aplastic anaemia. Because it is not possible to say what triggers the anaemia, it is not possible to identify a safe level of residue in meat.

Bute was banned from use in humans after it was found that about 1 person in 30,000 recipients suffered a serious side effect. But in levels reported in previous FSA testing of contaminated meat, the maximum level found would have to be multiplied a thousand-fold to be at the same level as that which used to be given to humans.

This suggests that even if you have eaten products which contain contaminated horse meat, the risk of damage to your health is very low.

However, if possible, our advice is not to eat a product if the bute testing is still in progress or bute has been found in it.

Are you testing other products?

The immediate focus of testing has been on minced beef products and for the presence of horse meat. Whenever horse meat is found, we insist that it be tested for veterinary drug phenylbutazone (bute).

Outside of this investigation, a national sampling programme is already in place in the UK and the priorities for the programme are based on evidence and intelligence we receive.

If we gain evidence or intelligence that other testing is necessary, we will consider this.

Some reports say the Findus lasagne was all horse meat and some 60%. Which is right?

Food Standards Agency has confirmed that a number of the samples taken to test the meat content of beef lasagne products recalled by Findus tested positive for more than 60% horse meat.

Findus withdrew the beef lasagne products after its French supplier, Comigel, raised concerns about the type of meat used in the lasagne. The Findus beef lasagne was distributed to the main UK supermarkets and smaller convenience stores. Findus has already begun a full recall of these products.

People who have bought any Findus beef lasagne products are advised not to eat them.

Does the Food Standards Agency do testing itself?

The FSA doesn’t have its own labs to do this work. Sometimes it commissions tests from independent laboratories itself and sometimes we work through local authorities. In the case of the beef products, the food businesses are commissioning the testing from independent labs and the results will be shared with the Agency.

What are the results of the testing so far?

Please refer to our 'Advice for consumers' page for more information on testing results.

What should I do if I've got any of these products?

Please refer to our 'Advice for consumers' page for more information.

If you are concerned, please contact your local authority or the retailer where you bought the product.

How confident can the FSA be that this is not a food safety problem?

The FSA is stressing that, on the basis of the evidence, there is no food safety risk to consumers from these products.

There is nothing about horse meat which makes it any more or less safe than other meat products and the meat products were supplied to the retailers by approved establishments.

On 9 April Asda informed the Agency that very low levels of bute had been found in 340g tins of its Smart Price Corned Beef. Based on the available information, any risk to human health is very low. However, Asda is recalling this product and anyone who has Asda Smart Price Corned Beef should not eat it, but return it to the nearest Asda store for a full refund.

Our advice is not to eat a product if the bute testing is still in progress or bute has been found in it.

What is the concern about bute?

Animals treated with bute are not allowed to enter the food chain as it may pose a risk to human health.

Bute was banned from most medical uses in humans after it was found that about 1 person in 30,000 recipients suffered a serious side effect. In bute levels reported in previous FSA testing of contaminated meat, the maximum level we found would have to be multiplied 1,000 times to be at the same level as that which used to be given to humans.

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