Pregnant women are advised to steer clear of processed meats during pregnancy because these refrigerated and ready-to-eat foods are among the main dietary sources of listeria monocytogenes, an infamous bacterium known to cause the food-borne illness listeriosis. And now, the recent horse meat scandal is yet another reason for expecting mothers to err on the side of caution.

How the horsemeat scandal unfolded

The outrage erupted on the 15th January 2013 when inspectors of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) reported that tests conducted on some processed meats revealed traces of horse and pig DNA.

Of the 27 beef burgers collected, ten samples contained equine DNA while the remaining 23 tested positive for pig DNA. The meat came from Liffey Meat and Silvercrest Foods, two Irish processing plants as well as the Dalepak Hambleton plant in Yorkshire, UK. The burgers were on sale in Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland with one of the Tesco samples — the economical Everyday Value Beef Burgers — containing about 29 percent horse meat.

Ongoing tests in mid-February exposed two other products: Tesco’s Everyday value spaghetti Bolognese and Findus frozen lasagne which is produced by the French company Comigel. Both of these foods were found to consist of up to 100 percent horse meat.

Health implications — Phenylbutazone

According to the Food Standard Agency (FSA), horse meat does not pose any health problems and the agency stresses that the adulterated burgers found to contain horse meat tested negative for the presence of bute (phenylbutazone).

Bute, currently used as an analgesic in horses, was once used as a human medicine in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis before it was removed from the market due to side-effects. On its website, the FSA reassures the public that “animals treated with bute are not allowed to enter the food chain as it may pose a risk to human health.” The agency also adds that in the event one has eaten bute-contaminated horse meat, the risk of adverse health effects is very low — only one in 30,000 chances.

However, in late January, Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh told the Commons that she was “in receipt of evidence showing that several horses slaughtered in UK abattoirs last year tested positive for phenylbutazone, or bute, a drug which causes cancer in humans and is banned from the human food chain.”

“It is possible that those animals entered the human food chain. We now know that criminals have passed off untraceable horse meat into products that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people have eaten over at least several months,” Ms Creagh disclosed.

Bute-treated horses can actually end up in our food chain if veterinarians and horse owners do not ensure that horse passports are kept up-to-date.

Should you be concerned?

In a statement to the BBC, England’s Chief medical officer Prof Dame Sally Davies said that to be at risk of the drug’s side-effects “a person would have to eat 500-600, 100% horsemeat burgers a day to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose. [The drug] passes through the system fairly quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies.”

It is unknown whether minute amounts of the drug can cross the foeto-placental barrier or end up in breast milk. It would therefore be advisable that you abstain from any kind of processed meats during your pregnancy or if you’re lactating.

Latest health concerns — Dermorphin

The horse meat scandal rages on with rumours that the powerful painkiller dermorphin may have entered the market via contaminated horse meat according to a news article published by the Daily Mail on the 24th Februrary.

Made from the venom of South American jungle frogs, dermorphin is illegally used to dope racehorses to allow them to compete even when seriously injured.

The paper reported that the Humane Society International has warned that, despite the EU’s interdiction of using drugs on animals that will be used for human consumption, the “tree frog juice” may have infiltrated our food chain via American horse meat.

Holly Hazard, a representative of The Humane Society of the United States told the Sunday Express that “there is no way to track illegal substances such as dermorphin, routinely used by unscrupulous horse trainers to enhance performance, because laboratories wouldn’t even know to test for these drugs.”

What this means for you

For obvious reasons, dermorphin has never been tested on pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers. As such, any possible health implications are unknown. Again, you may want to play it safe and avoid processed meats.

Horse meat ‘popping up’ in more and more products

Unfortunately, the horse meat brouhaha shows no signs of abating with IKEA withdrawing meatballs from sale in 14 European countries including the UK. The BBC reported on the 25th February that tests conducted in the Czech Republic discovered traces of horse meat in a batch made in Sweden — the said batch had also been sold in the UK.

The BBC article also mentions that, according to the Spanish agriculture ministry, beef pasta packs manufactured by brands owned by Nestle had been tested positive for horse meat.

And finally, the Sunday Express disclosed that Birds Eye withdrew a number of ready meals from the market while the Armed Forces and Ascot racecourse (a catering giant supplying schools) recalled its beef.

Steps being implemented to control the horse meat contamination

As the independent food safety and food hygiene watchdog in the UK, the FSA has initiated a UK-wide survey of food authenticity to be conducted by local authorities.

The first phase of this survey is still ongoing and involves food companies analysing the type of meat present in any product that contains beef as the chief ingredient, such as burgers, mince and sausages. Beef-based ready-to-eat meals like lasagne and cottage pie will be tested in phase two. The third phase will be a Europe-wide programme to check foods like steak, gelatine, beef dripping, stock cubes and seasoned kebabs.

“We are assessing the need for any further veterinary medicine testing of both horses slaughtered in the UK and of horse meat found in food,” declared a spokesperson of the FSA.