'Bute' and the Beast

By Eckhoff, Vickery | Newsweek, March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Bute' and the Beast


Eckhoff, Vickery, Newsweek


Byline: Vickery Eckhoff

What's in your horse burger?

The French take few tips from the British, but French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll made an exception recently when addressing reporters at the Paris farm show.

"One would have to eat 500 horse burgers every day in order to run a risk," Le Foll stated. He borrowed the line from U.K. Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, who used it just weeks ago to downplay the hazards of eating horse meat adulterated with phenylbutazone during what has turned out to be a massive international food scandal with people in the U.K. being unwittingly subjected to equine flesh.

Otherwise known as "bute," the drug is a potent equine painkiller that's prohibited in horse meat produced by EU trading partners, including the U.S., where 95-100 percent of horses are estimated to be "buted."

Although European government ministers claim that the horse-meat debacle is nothing more than a labeling issue, bute poses serious health hazards, according to a growing list of veterinarians as well as the authors of "Association of Phenylbutazone Usage With Horses Bought for Slaughter: A Public-Health Risk."

Published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, the research study states that the health hazards associated with bute in horse meat aren't dose related.

According to the study, bute causes bone-marrow depression like aplastic anemia, agranulocytosis, thrombocytopenia, leucopenia, pancytopenia, and hemolytic anemia, which are fatal in the vast majority of cases. The elderly are more susceptible than younger adults. The risks for developing bone-marrow depression and other serious effects are heightened because humans metabolize bute into oxyphenbutazone, which also causes bone-marrow depression.

The study also demonstrates that children are at increased risk of developing aplastic anemia from minute levels of bute and oxyphenbutazone in horse meat, presumably because their bones are still growing. But even very low levels of bute can result in a hypersensitivity reaction in susceptible adults that's mostly fatal. All of these effects are considered to be idiosyncratic, meaning it is unknown who will be afflicted.

The National Toxicology Program showed that bute is a carcinogen. In fact, bute can cause chromosomal alterations that lead to cancers like leukemia in humans.

In amounts lower than those that cause bone-marrow depression, bute can also result in a serum sickness-like illness resulting in "fever, fatigue, malaise, and inflammation of the kidney, swollen glands and an enlarged spleen. A person can end up on dialysis for the rest of their life," the authors of the peer-reviewed research study wrote in a follow-up letter to the editor.

Because bute was taken off the market for human use more than a decade ago due to its side effects, no long-term studies have been or will be conducted. No safe levels were set by food-safety regulators. Therefore, the drug was banned for all animals intended for human consumption, and there is no withdrawal time.

As the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service stated back in 2007, "phenylbutazone is considered to be one of the most toxic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It is not approved for use in food animals and there are no regulatory limits, such as acceptable daily intake or safe concentration for meat, established by the Food and Drug Administration. Therefore, the presence of any amount of phenylbutazone in food animal tissue will be considered a violation and likely to be unsafe for human consumption."

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who co-authored the peer-reviewed paper with Dr. Ann Marini and Dr. Nicolas Blondeau back in 2010, points to other drugs besides bute that are banned in horses (or other animals) intended for human consumption but that are also found in horse meat entering the food supply.

Horses--and particularly racehorses--are walking pharmacies. …

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