Unrestricted exports of British beef should be under way early next year following a favourable report by EU vets into the country’s BSE controls.
The report, published on Wednesday, followed an inspection by the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office last June.
The vets examined the UK’s BSE surveillance methods, controls on specified risk materials and animal feeds, and its cattle ID systems.
“Satisfactory progress was noted in most areas,” it said.
“The quality of the data on identification and registration has considerably improved.
Timely tracing of cohorts is feasible and the cohorts cull is satisfactory.”
A favourable report was one of the prerequisites for removing export restrictions.
The other was that the incidence of BSE had to drop below 200 cases per million head of adult cattle – something the UK achieved last February.
“The two conditions that the European Commission set out in its plan for discussions to begin on lifting the embargo on British beef have now been met,” said food safety commissioner Markos Kyprianou.
The next stage will be for member states to discuss the report’s findings in the EU’s food chain committee, after which the commission will draw up a proposal for a return to normal exports.
It is possible that member state experts could approve that proposal in the committee.
The greater likelihood, however, is that the issue will be passed to EU agriculture ministers at their meeting in December.
It remains to be seen if any political obstacles are thrown up at that stage.
Certainly the FVO report was not without some criticism, for example calling for improvements in sampling and testing fallen stock.
But Meat and Livestock Commission international manager Peter Hardwick insists there is no reason for any delay.
“Portugal has a higher incidence of BSE than the UK and it is exporting freely.”
The NFU said the sooner exports resume the better.
Over-30-month cattle will be allowed back onto the market from 7 November and there is concern that processors will use this opportunity to drop prices.
“OTMS values are 87p/kg deadweight, compared with 160p/kg for cull cows in France,” said farm policy advisor Robert Newbery.
“Once exporting resumes we can expect considerably better prices.”
The NFU is calling for the OTMS to continue to operate as a safety net until the export market is properly established.
It is due to be removed in the first week of January, when the Older Cattle Disposal Scheme (for animals born before August 1996) is introduced.
DEFRA told stakeholders that mid-February is the most likely date for normal exports to resume.
Restrictions mean that only de-boned beef from animals between six and 30 months are allowed to be exported from a small number of designated abattoirs.