Tainted meat: Banned veterinary drugs found in horse meat

FULL STORY: Tainted Meat

TORONTO – A 16×9 investigation into Canada’s horse meat industry has uncovered gaps in regulation that critics say allow meat into the food chain that is not fit for human consumption.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have identified a long list of commonly used veterinary drugs that have been banned for use in food-producing animals.  Global News takes a look at some of the most common banned drugs administered to horses:

Phenylbutazone or PBZ, nitrofurazone and clenbuterol

One of the most frequent treatments is phenylbutazone – or PBZ. It’s a painkiller and anti-inflammatory used so often that it’s been dubbed “horse aspirin.”

PBZ was first marketed as a treatment for arthritis and gout in the United States in 1952.  But within three years, links to potentially fatal blood disorders were discovered.  As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned PBZ for use in food-producing animals.  The FDA says there are no safe levels of PBZ for human consumption.

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READ MORE: 16×9 investigation: Canada’s horse slaughter industry under fire

In an Irish Veterinary Journal article published in 2010, PBZ is called “the most potent and effective pain relieving agent available in equine medicine.”  But the authors warn, “The difficulty with Phenylbutazone is that it, or its metabolite, can cause aplastic anaemia in children. If a child were to consume an animal-based product containing even the minutest amount of bute or its metabolite then the child may develop plastic anaemia,” the article warned.

And recent research indicates it’s unclear how long it takes PBZ to leave the equine’s body, if ever.  “Traces of PBZ will remain as a contaminant of horse meat in previously treated horses for a very long and as yet undetermined period of time,” according to an article published in the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2010.

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“Almost all of the PBZ remains in the bloodstream,” the article continues.  “The blood is drained from horses but its level of completeness is unknown,” indicating that even when horses are slaughtered and drained of their blood, potentially harmful drug residues may remain.

Nitrofurazone is also toxic to humans. It used to be used as an ointment or cream to treat burns and wounds that have become infected, but over time, it too was banned for use in humans.

The biggest concern is that it’s been linked to cancer.

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Clenbuterol is used to treat horses with breathing difficulties, but is banned for human use in Canada. Lately, it’s been touted as a weight-loss wonder drug, with bodybuilders abusing the veterinary drug.

Public health officials in Quebec recently warned of the drug surfacing online for human use. Some 26 cases of probable poisoning were reported. Side effects of Clenbuterol include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headaches, chest pain, heart palpitations, hypotension and hypertension.

Take a look at the list of banned drugs here:

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Regulations for horse meat

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says Health Canada regulates the use of veterinary drugs in the country. PBZ is approved by the federal agency to be used in horses but it’s not approved for use in food-producing animals – including horses slated for human consumption.

The CFIA claims agency personnel perform daily inspections in all federally registered meat establishments, and that they also test the horses regularly for PBZ.

The agency says it has tested an average of 385 samples per year since 2010. But that means out of 82,000 horses slaughtered in 2012, less than 0.5% were tested. In an email, the agency claimed its tests show a 98 per cent industry compliance rate with industry standards regarding banned substances.

16×9 wanted to further explore these testing claims, but repeated interview requests were declined.

Tracing horse histories

Every horse bound for the slaughterhouse must come with an Equine Identification Document – or EID – that provides information on veterinary treatments. It was intended to make a horse’s drug history more traceable.

Sellers are asked if the animal has had any drugs or vaccines within the past 180 days or during the time the animal was under the seller’s care – that 180 day “safe period” is deemed acceptable, despite unanswered questions about how long it takes those drugs to leave a horse’s body, and CFIA claims that it has “zero tolerance” for those substances.

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Critics also say the EID system relies too heavily on the honour system.  A seller need only check a box confirming the horse has not been given any banned substance; no other documentation is required.

And there is proof that tainted meat is slipping through Canada’s regulatory net.  In 2012, two years after the EID system was introduced, European regulators announced a shipment of Canadian horse meat tested positive for Phenylbutazone and Clenbuterol.  Advocacy groups like the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition have also documented drug-riddled horses getting past inspectors, and entering the human food chain.

Watch the full March 8, 2014 episode of 16X9.

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