PARIS — The scandal over horse meat in the European food chain widened Thursday from a case of mislabeling to one of food safety as public health authorities in Britain said that a powerful equine painkiller, potentially harmful to human health, ‘‘may have entered the food chain’’ in France.
British officials sought to reassure the public that the drug — phenylbutazone, or bute, an anti-inflammatory used commonly on lame horses — was found only in trace amounts in a small number of British horse carcasses. Out of 206 carcasses, eight tested positive for bute, and just six of those carcasses were exported to France.
The drug is also used to treat arthritis in humans, and very large doses can cause a potentially fatal blood disorder, aplastic anemia, in which the bone marrow fails to produce enough blood cells.
Even before the discovery, the scandal had plunged the European food industry into crisis. Frozen foods, including hamburger, lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, and moussaka, have been withdrawn from supermarket freezers in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, France, and Germany.
But the positive tests for the equine drug have raised fresh concerns, even in countries like France, where eating horse meat is more acceptable than in Britain, where it is taboo. Unlike cattle, which are raised for slaughter in controlled conditions, the lame horses or former plow animals that are sometimes slaughtered for consumption do not carry the same guarantees of origin or quality.
‘‘Unscrupulous criminal elements have been profiting from these unfortunate animals by exploiting a hopelessly flawed horse passport scheme, lax animal export controls at ports and slaughterhouses willing to compromise animal welfare and public safety for a quick profit,’’ said David Wilson, the spokesman for the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in Northern Ireland. Suspect frozen beef hamburgers discovered in Ireland first triggered the crisis.
“Many horses that are either valueless or in suffering are being corralled in remote farmyards and packed into vehicles for transport to abattoirs in Ireland and the UK,’’ he said. ‘‘After slaughter, many are processed and find their way effortlessly into the European food chain.’’
After days of investigation, French authorities announced Thursday that they suspected fraud at a French company, Spanghero, which supplied meat — including large quantities of horse meat — to Comigel, a French-owned company whose Luxembourg factory used the meat to make frozen meals. They said they would suspend Spanghero’s operating license. The company denied any wrongdoing.