The Food Standards Agency was accused of a shambolic handling of the escalating horsemeat scandal last night, after it emerged that it is failing to stop exports of carcasses that could contain a banned drug harmful to humans.
Days after David Cameron claimed the scandal was merely an issue of food labelling, not food safety, the watchdog admitted that it is testing all horsemeat exported from the UK for human consumption in Europe – yet is still allowing it to enter the European food chain.
A sample of 1.6 per cent of the more than 9,000 British horse carcasses exported to European markets showed five contaminated with phenylbutazone, also known as bute, The Independent on Sunday can reveal. When extrapolated, the numbers of those contaminated suggest one in 30, about 313 horses, would be affected. But after the eruption of the scandal, the FSA has started testing all British horsemeat for bute.
It is understood that, despite the blanket testing, the potentially contaminated horses are still being exported to the Continent to be used for food production, which could in turn end up on British dinner tables in processed food. The FSA failed to answer why it was still allowing horsemeat to be exported before test results, which take three weeks, are completed.
As the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, held a Whitehall crisis summit to get a grip on the scandal, Findus said it believed the contamination was deliberate. "The early results from Findus UK's internal investigation strongly suggests that the horsemeat contamination in beef lasagne was not accidental," it said, confirming that it was considering legal action. The horsemeat which ended up in its products originated in Romania, and was revealed to have travelled via a convoluted supply chain which involved meat traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands, three French companies, and possibly other intermediaries.
Mr Paterson, who is understood to have had a dressing down from No 10 for failing to act on the crisis sooner, claimed yesterday that there was an "international conspiracy" behind the contamination of food with horsemeat and vowed tougher action. Yet in Brussels on Friday, the Prime Minister reassured consumers that it was still safe to eat beef, insisting: "It's not about food safety – it's about proper food labelling and about confidence in retailers."
Bute is an anti-inflammatory veterinary drug used to treat pain or fever in horses and which, in high doses over time, can cause aplastic anaemia and other complaints.
A well-placed source confirmed that contaminated meat could not be stopped from entering the food chain, directly contradicting Mr Cameron's insistence that the scandal was a food labelling rather than a food safety issue.
Five abattoirs in the UK are licensed to slaughter horses. Until last week, only a small sample of carcasses had been tested for bute – which is banned in the EU for human consumption. The FSA admitted last night it was "probable" that more contamination cases would follow.
Some of the carcasses that tested positive were destined for the French market, but one was purchased and consumed in Lancashire and Yorkshire, a parliamentary question by the shadow Environment Minister Mary Creagh revealed.
Ms Creagh said: "I raised this in Parliament two weeks ago and was told all meat was tested. It has become clear, since then, that all meat has not been tested and the Food Standards Agency is only now testing all horses for bute."
The IoS can also reveal that officials were alerted a decade ago that British horsemeat due to be exported to foreign food suppliers was testing positive for bute. Over the past 10 years, 23 samples of British horsemeat have tested positive for the drug, the independent Veterinary Residues Committee said, adding it passed the information on to the FSA and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Last year, the EU issued a rapid alert warning that chilled horsemeat being exported from the UK had been found to contain bute.
The worrying developments came as the FSA confirmed it was "probable" that more horsemeat will be found in beef products. After a hastily arranged meeting of food industry groups at Defra yesterday, Mr Paterson said he had asked retailers responsible for selling most minced beef products to test their products for horsemeat and report back by Friday. But there was increasing consternation at how the products had got past testers and growing questions about food safety monitoring.
Mr Paterson said yesterday: "It is down to the retailers to decide what are the appropriate measures needed to give people confidence in their products." Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: "This is an appalling situation The Government has got to get a grip on this situation."
What is this "bute" then?
Phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
What's it for?
It's a short-term treatment for joint pain and fever in animals.
Like ibuprofen, then?
Except it's not approved for humans.
Prolonged use gives horses ulcers, kidney damage, internal haemorrhage, weight loss and, in advanced stages, kidney failure and death.
So what happens if we eat horse meat with it in?
Probably not much.
So why not just eat it and smile?
The British Veterinary Association has "concerns regarding the toxicity of the drug and its metabolites, which can be harmful to human health over a lifetime's exposure".
How the crisis grew
16 Jan The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announces that it has found some burgers containing up to 29 per cent horse DNA.
David Cameron says: "This is extremely disturbing news. I have asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an urgent investigation. They have made clear there's no risk to public safety as there is no safety risk."
So, crisis over?
17 Jan Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, Asda and Co-op say they will remove 10 million burgers from stores.
18 Jan The FSA stresses, "on the basis of the evidence, there is no food safety risk to consumers from these products".
So, crisis over?
1 Feb The UK Prison Service launches an investigation after halal meat pies and pasties supplied to prisons are found to contains traces of pork DNA.
An FSA spokesman says: "People have a right to expect that the food they are eating is correctly described.
So, crisis over?
7 Feb The FSA declares a second case of "gross contamination" after Findus UK beef lasagne produced by Comigel found to contain 100 per cent horsemeat.
Mr Cameron says: "This isn't about food safety. It's about effective labelling; it's about proper retail practice."
So, crisis over?
9 Feb The FSA asks all retailers to test meat products for horse DNA, and warns more contamination is probable. The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, says there is "no evidence of a threat to public safety".