Post-Chernobyl sheep controls to be lifted

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has agreed to revoke the controls imposed on sheep following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, but has said that the news needs to be communicated to the public carefully to prevent it denting consumer confidence in lamb.

‘Mark and release’ monitoring controls on sheep across 9,800 UK holdings were introduced in 1986, as the Chernobyl nuclear accident raised food safety concerns over the levels of radiocaesium in the meat of sheep grazing in certain upland areas. These levels have been monitored by the FSA ever since, but the latest scientific risk assessment suggests the risk from eating sheep meat is extremely low, and does not present a food safety danger to consumers.

Of the original 9,800 holdings, the restrictions currently affect just 335 farms, with eight farms in Cumbria and the remaining 327 farms (approximately 250,000 sheep) in North Wales.

At yesterday’s board meeting, the FSA agreed that the post-Chernobyl restrictions on sheep should be lifted from 1 June, as the current controls are no longer proportionate to the very low risk and continuing them would have a negligible effect on further reducing any risks. It agreed that removing the controls would not compromise consumer safety. It will therefore issue consents, which will have the practical impact of lifting controls and permit all farms remaining under restriction to move sheep without the need for monitoring.

It will also advise Defra ministers and the devolved governments, to revoke the remaining Orders under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (known as FEPA Orders) that currently restrict the movement of sheep in designated areas of the UK. This will remove the legislation made redundant by the issuing of consents.

Although the lifting of restrictions will mean farmers losing headage payments of £1.30 in recognition of the additional work imposed by the controls, they will not have to go through the ‘mark and release’ inspections and monitoring process and will gain the freedom to trade and move animals when they choose, which will enable them to take advantage of market price increases.

However, the board agreed that the news would have to be communicated carefully with consumers, as some organisations and producers had raised fears that the news could adversely affect reputation and consumer confidence, regardless of whether any concerns were scientifically unfounded. However, it was noted that there was no adverse effect after restrictions were lifted in Northern Ireland and Scotland in 2000 and 2010 respectively.

A 12-week consultation period last November with key stakeholders, including consumers, affected farmers, farming unions and trade bodies, gauged reaction from the industry over the proposals.

During the consultation, Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales said: “The potential damage to the consumption of lamb needs to be carefully considered, as consumers may perceive the product to be less safe if checks are no longer carried out. However, this is extremely difficult to quantify as the majority of consumers will not even realise that there are still farms under restriction 25 years on from the original incident. Therefore, if the restrictions are lifted, this needs to be communicated in a careful and sensitive manner, so as not to raise unnecessary alarm among consumers of lamb.”

Cumbria County Council agreed that the only concern was in the potential impact on the market at home and abroad. “The lifting of these restrictions is clearly good news and finally draws a line under the issues for those farmers concerned. However, if this is communicated incorrectly, it could damage the confidence that consumers have in the safety of lamb producers in the area. Therefore, before the removal of the restrictions, a communication plan should be developed to address any fears and misconceptions that the public may have or the media will try to portray. This needs to be a clear and simple message that the general public are able to understand.”

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