Butchers are abandoning older prime beef in droves because of the over-zealous enforcement of rules on removing the spinal column, driving down prices for over-24-month cattle.

But hopes are rising that lobbying may soon persuade food safety officials to relax their approach.

Since the start of May a two-tier market has emerged, with cattle aged over 24 months being penalised by buyers.

The discount had widened to as much as 15p/kg deadweight in some parts of the country, said Thomas Binns, chairman of the NFU’s livestock board.

Areas that specialised in slower growing native breeds had been particularly hard-hit, with West Country farmers relying on over-24-month beef for more than two-thirds of trade, he added.

“We should be encouraging the production of grass-fed, slow-growing beef cattle.

“It is good for the environment, especially in the uplands, it is good for local economies and it produces meat that is high in omega 3 fatty acids.

Yet all of this is being put at risk because of the over-zealous interpretation of an outdated and unnecessary rule.

“We want the government and the Food Standards Agency to deliver clear and workable instructions that achieve a balance between proportionate and effective safeguards and consumer choice.”

Since 3 May, the vertebral column has had to be removed as specified risk material from animals aged 24 to 30 months.

This is in line with EU regulations that were applied in this country when the beef export ban was lifted.

Renderer

As category one SRM, the spinal cord is supposed to be removed by an abattoir or butcher’s shop and collected daily by a renderer for disposal.

But most butchers were not prepared to put up with the extra paperwork, licensing and other regulatory hassle, said Mr Binns.

Launceston butcher Philip Warren, who has done a deal with Prosper de Mulder to treat all his SRM waste as category one for disposal, said:

“There was no way the renderer would send a lorry to pick up category one waste from all small butchers, so many turned round to their abattoir and said they didn’t want anything over 24 months.”

This meant T-bone steaks were unavailable from many slower native breeds and he said the rules were pushing the industry in completely the wrong direction.

“It is forcing farmers to produce what we don’t want: Indoor young bulls.”

Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said:

“It is frustrating, because the FSA Board’s initial suggestion to allow butchers to remove vertebral column was very sensible, but it was ruined by overzealous and complex guidance to local authorities on enforcement.”

But industry lobbying may have paid off, as officials at the FSA have promised a lighter touch on enforcement.

If that happens, fresh guidance urging local authorities to back off should be issued over the next few weeks.

Mr Binns said the next step was to negotiate a change to the EU regulations.

“The Commission is well aware of the difficulties the legislation is causing.”

He said it was likely that age restrictions would be lifted to 30 or 36 months by the end of the year.

sam.fortescue@rbi.co.uk