The EU Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH) has voted unanimously to raise the age at which bovine vertebral column (VC) is classified as a specific risk material (SRM) from 24 months to 30 months.
Current EU law states that VC has to be removed from all cattle over the age of 24 months in licensed abattoirs or butchers' shops. It must then be stained blue and disposed of in accordance with strict SRM protocols.
The cost of spinal column removal means that prime beef animals aged over 24 months are subject to a price penalty of up to 25p/kgdw, which can work out at as much as £100 per head.
The NFU, which has campaigned for several years to get the age limit raised, has hailed the decision as good news for farmers and consumers alike, as it will improve the economics of producing mature grass-fed beef. NFU livestock board chairman Thomas Binns said: "Traditional slow-grown, grass-fed beef is a wonderful product and rearing it is wonderfully good for the environment of our hills, uplands and other grassland areas.
"But because it takes longer to produce and with a hefty price penalty on top of that, because of the EU rules on spinal column removal, it just hasn't stacked up as an economic proposition on most farms."
Butchers will also benefit from the change in legislation, which will enable them to sell bone-in cuts of beef such as T-bone steaks and full bone-in ribs of beef.
Graham Bidston, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, said: "We are delighted, although it is a decision they should have made a long time ago. It is a shame that the limit will not be raised in time for the Christmas trade. However, the change will give our members the freedom to sell beef on the bone. That is something supermarkets don't offer and it might allow butchers to get back the trade they have lost over the past couple of years."
For processors struggling as a result of the FMD outbreak, the decision will give some reprieve from mounting costs.
Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors Association, said: "It is really good news and will have a significant impact for processors."
The proposals will be subject to a statutory three-month scrutiny process. If accepted, they could come into effect early next year.