Delight as BSE test breakthrough opens door to exporting live cattle.
The ban on the export of live cattle could be lifted by the end of the year. The Food Standards Agency board yesterday decided to advise the Government that a reliable BSE testing system has been developed to replace the Over-Thirty Months Scheme.
That could enable older animals to be sold into the food chain this autumn, with the export ban being lifted soon afterwards.
After a two-hour meeting yesterday the FSA board agreed that the testing regime is capable of operating across the UK to the highest standards.
But the board said Defra must keep the current OTMS running in parallel with the new system until it was clear that there was sufficient capacity to cope with demand for the slaughter of OTM animals. And it said that the move should be explained to the public at the earliest opportunity.
FSA chairman Deidre Hutton is expected to write to the Government immediately outlining the agency's recommendations.
If ministers accept the proposals, the OTM scheme could end at the beginning of November with the export ban lifted soon after.
The National Beef Association predicted that live exports would resume by the end of the year.
'The jigsaw pieces that make up the timetable for the resumption of exports are coming together quickly,' said NBA chief executive Robert Forster.
'The mid-summer inspection by European Commission vets produced no show-stoppers and all the reports we are getting indicate that the EC has an end-of-the-year timetable fixed firmly in its head and is working determinedly to meet it.'
Mr Forster said the end of the OTMS and the date-based export scheme would lift much of the gloom that currently hangs over the beef industry, where market prices paid to farmers have slumped in recent months.
'The opening of new markets for UK beef will introduce much needed competition for supermarkets and burger manufacturers, but the resumption of live cattle trading is also significant,' he said.
'It will mean that all cattle types can be sold to buyers in the EU as long as EU welfare and certification requirements are fulfilled.'
Farmers' Union of Wales president Gareth Vaughan said yesterday's decision was 'a huge boost' to the Welsh beef industry.
'We call on Government ministers to implement the FSA's recommendations without further delay,' he said.
'And we urge the European Commission to lift all export restrictions on British beef quickly so our farmers can once again compete in the single market.'
The Government decided last December that the OTMS could end once a reliable system for testing BSE was in place.
The debate on changing the restrictions began in May 2002 as a result of the decline in BSE in the UK since the height of the epidemic in 1992. The epidemic is now in steep decline. Last year there were 82 clinical cases in the UK, compared with 36,682 at the peak of the epidemic in 1992.
The main BSE control, the removal of Specified Risk Material, which removes more than 99% of any possible infected matter, will remain in place.
The other main control, the ban on meat and bone meal being fed to farm animals, is also unchanged, and all animals born before August 1996 will continue to be excluded from the food chain.
An Independent Advisory Group, set up by the FSA to oversee and advise on testing, reported earlier this year that a reliable BSE testing system for OTM cattle had been successfully designed and tested and would be able to operate across the UK to the highest standards.
In June the European Commission's Food and Veterinary Office conducted an inspection of BSE controls in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the final report is not yet available, it is understood that it will also conclude that a satisfactory system has been put in place to assess the effectiveness of the testing regime should the OTM rule be replaced.