In light of recent opinions from the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), the Commission has accepted that the BSE testing age for cattle entering the food chain could be raised from 30 to 48 months of age.
The Commission is planning to seek approval of the proposal at the next European Standing Committee for Animal Health (SCoFCAH) meeting, currently scheduled for mid-October. The regulation could come into force as early as January 2009.
In the UK, any move to raise the testing age of cattle slaughtered for human consumption will also have to be agreed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and finally by ministers. The FSA is due to consider the matter on 15 October.
Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) president Graham Furey described the decision as "another demonstration of confidence in European beef" and said, "Any relaxation in BSE controls is good news for farmers. Farmers will not be charged the testing fee for cattle under 48 months and this should mean a saving per animal on kill charges. It also means less red tape for farmers who, until now, had to be very conscious of the 30 months age threshold when finishing animals."
Nigel Miller, vice-president of NFU Scotland, welcomed the decision, but pointed out that while the proposal offered opportunities to "strip costs out of the beef chain", it also contained some "issues and anomalies".
"While the age requirement for BSE testing for those cattle going into the food chain will move to 48 months, the requirement for spinal cord to be removed from beef carcases will remain at 30 months," he said. "For later finishing animals, this raises the spectre of a two-tier market, as it may be more difficult to sell beef on the bone from those animals between 30 and 48 months of age."
Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said that there were still some regulatory hoops to go through, but the proposal was "excellent news" for the industry. "We are hopeful that the domestic authorities will implement the changes as quickly as possible," he added.
The news is particularly welcome to processors in the light of Defra's proposal to pass the cost of BSE testing back to the industry. The BMPA is concerned that Defra's initial impact analysis on transferring testing costs did not take into account the most recent 18% rise in MHS charges. "The cumulative impact of passing BSE testing costs back to industry and the 18% rise in MHS charges would be significant," said Roberts. "We have written to Defra ministers saying that they must reassess their impact analysis in light of the charge increase."