Professor Hugh Pennington, best known for his independent inquiry into the 2005 E. coli outbreak in Wales involving school children, is again stirring the food safety pot from his emeritus post at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.  With Europe moving from one food-related scandal to another, Pennington has been doing one media interview after another, making news with each one. As one of the world’s top food safety experts, it was Pennington who Wales turned to to investigate its largest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak ever (and the second largest in the United Kingdom).  More than 150 people, most of them children, were infected in the Wales outbreak, and 31 were hospitalized.  One child, 5-year-old Mason Jones, died as a result of his infection. Jones became the face of the tragedy. Pennington’s inquiry in Wales led to the criminal prosecution that sent the butcher who supplied the schools to prison. On Europe’s recent scandal involving the substitution of horse meat for beef, Pennington has had a lot to say.  First, he says horse meat is safer than beef because it does not contain E. coli.  “There are no E. coli cases associated with horse meat, though there are around 1,000 cases linked to cattle in the UK each year,” Pennington said. He suggests that people have been overreacting to the scandal, and says most people could not tell beef from horse in a taste test. Pennington says horse is “bog standard red meat.”  He acknowledges that residues of the horse pain killer known as “bute” are a “theoretical risk,” but says somebody would have to eat “tons” of horse burgers before there would be any harm. Pennington says Europe needs to legitimize horse meat trade to prevent the type of scandal currently being investigated throughout the continent. Pennington also told British media that meat is generally safer to eat than leafy green salads. Meat, he says, undergoes a more rigorous regulatory process with more quality control checks. Bagged salads go through a chemical wash to kill bugs, but Pennington says the process does not get them all. “You can only make vegetables safe by cooking and you can’t obviously do that with salad,” Pennington says. “You could irradiate it — but that would be a ‘no, no’ with the public. You just can’t be absolutely sure that the bagged salad you are buying, which has been put through a chemical wash to kill the bugs, is actually free of them.” He encourages consumers to wash bagged salads because food pathogens including cryptosporidium, Salmonella and Listeria can be riding along on the vegetables. Finally, the Scottish investigation into pre-packaged sandwiches, which found bacteria in 4 out of 48 samples, does not concern Pennington that much because spoilage is harmful and it stinks.  The investigation by 20 local environmental health departments also found another 9 samples of pre-packaged sandwiches that were “borderline.” “The bacteria found in these sandwiches, while not harmful, make them very unpleasant to eat,”Pennington says.  He says the problem may be in the refrigerated storage or sandwich makers are getting the shelf life wrong.

  • Katie Hill

    Interesting. And it’s “bute,” not “bite.” Although I can see how subconsciously, one in favor of eating horsemeat might prefer the term “bite.”

  • Susan Rudnicki

    So, never mind, Mr Pennington, that the raft of drugs American horses are treated with—wormers, steroids, pain medications, performance enhancers of all sorts—- carry a uniformly strict label—NOT FOR USE IN ANIMALS MEANT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. The veterinary checks to warn against the residues of these products, found in almost every horse taken to slaughter from the US, killed in Mexico and Canada, and shipped to the EU —these residues were labeled for no legitimate reason???? Mr Pennington is irresponsible and naiive and reckless in posturing as a “expert”

    • Eric Powell

      I think you either may be one of the people Pennington described as “overreacting” or very, very hungry. As scientists have shown in studies, you would have to eat 500 horse meat burgers per day to be at risk from wormers, steroids, pain medications, performance enhancers of all sorts. Unless you eat 500 horsemeat burgers a day, you will be safe.

    • Mrs. TA

      Most ppl don’t know that while yes horses are treated with all these things so are cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys and any other meat you buy from the grocery store. Most have a 60-90 day withdrawl period on them. So unless you are growing your own meat yourself don’t be fooled. Horses grown for meat consumption are given the proper medications at the proper times are just as safe to eat and any other meat.

      • Susan Rudnicki

        Madam—you are completely inaccurate in this assertion. Cite the sources for these statements. Beef, pork, poultry do not receive performance enhancing drugs, (what performance are they doing?) or wormers (they are raised in CAFOs) or pain meds (which is ‘Bute for equines) Equines are NOT raised for food in the US, which is why there is no regulatory structure or laws relevant to their slaughter. The labels of these equine drugs state uniformly “not for use in animals meant for human consumption” Please see April 2010 issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology for a analysis of ‘Bute residues. It is obvious you do not own horses, or any other animals where drugs are being administered, or you would know the laws.

        • McMurrray

          As a veterinary technician who has worked on numerous livestock farms I can tell you with great certainty that ALL animals raised for meat that are not specifically labeled as organic have received Performance enhancing drugs, wormers, pain meds, and antibiotics. The performance they perform is growing and they are given drugs that enhance this. They are all wormed at least 4 times per year with the same chemicals used to worm horses because parasites reduce growth, they are treated with antibiotics when injured or sometimes just to prevent disease, and they also receive pain meds. Each drug has a standard withdrawal time prior to slaughter, but rest assured all cattle, swine, lambs, and poultry have received plenty of drugs in their short life span. I know because I administered it.

  • p e

    Finally someone that realizes that eating horse meat is not a crime! Where is the horrible suffering when eating horses? Does that apply to cattle,chickens, hogs, etc… I surely do not hear the commotion about those species. Oh I know, the next comment will be we do not raise horses to eat but they are livestock and one way or the other they are going to die… why not use the meat? Did you hear the story of the bald eagles that are being nursed back to health after eating a horse that was put down with chemicals! A horse being put down is a horse being put down… chemicals or captive bolt…just one way is not toxic to every living creature. Let’s make processing of horses non stressful and move ahead. Then make your choice for your horse on what you will do with it when it comes time to put it down BUT do not make the decision for me with my horse. .

  • Professor Pennington’s acknowledgement of Bute as a “Theoretical risk” is accurate.
    Important research that targets the elimination rate of Bute in important equine tissues has yet to be accomplished. So in the meantime…

    Here something you may find interesting about BUTE… If the national debt, now approaching 18 trillion dollars, could be eliminated as quickly as bute is naturally eliminated (from horses blood) at 90%/day; it would be gone in 2 weeks.

    It is clear that the precautionary principle of environmental law is being applied by the EU in response to such “theoretical risks” to guide regulations for horsemeat. Even though, as Professor Pennington has pointed out, that horsemeat has historically shown to relatively safe compared to beef. SO.. if you think about it… From a public health standpoint, perhaps the more genuine risk to health relates to the beef that may have been mishandled during laxed operations, not the horsemeat contaminant.

    We should understand that it was never the intent of the precautionary prinicple to preclude research. We should also understand that the precautionary principle is a relatively new ideological development for government. And, as when anything new is applied, the full impact of potential
    risks are rarely known beforehand.
    From what we now know of the unintended consequences when wielded well-funded special interest organizations to achieve ancillary goals, it seems ironic that the sometimes privileged implementation of the precautionary principle to shaping regulations seems at least as reckless as the would be initiatives that it targets.
    It is perhaps interesting to note that misuse of the precautionary principle in the EU may be leading to a variety of unintended consequences, including the diversion of regulatory engagement that smight well have prevented the European horsemeat scandal.

  • This is very good to know. And we all need to keep up with how our friends in other parts of the world are managing this important problem. Here’s an interesting website.
    It seems that cooking can eliminate the risk. We should look forward to emerging research on this.