EU scientists have concluded that BSE infectivity is undetectable, if not totally absent, in cattle aged 33 months or less – an opinion that could signal a change in the rules governing the sale of beef-on-the-bone.

Currently beef processors are obliged to remove the vertebral column from all cattle slaughtered at 24 months or over. This was one of the conditions of lifting the export ban on British beef last year.

Before that, UK butchers and retailers could sell beef-on-the-bone from animals aged up to 30 months, whereas in the rest of the EU the limit was 12 months. The new rule harmonised all member states at 24 months.

But a new opinion from the European Food Safety Authority states that, since BSE only becomes detectable in the latter stages of the disease, “the BSE marker would either not be detectable or would still be absent in the vertebral column of cattle up to 33 months”.

According to NFU Scotland and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, this brings EFSA into line with the long-established advice from the UK authorities.

They argue that this should now pave the way for the EU to change the rules and increase the age at which vertebral column has to be removed to 30 months.

“The politics has to start moving,” said NFUS vice-president Nigel Miller. “Scotland’s new rural affairs minister, together with his UK colleagues, must ensure Brussels is crystal clear on the importance of changing this rule.”

But Thomas Binns, NFU livestock board chairman, said he was disappointed the statement did not go further. “There is no improvement on the positive position of April 2005 when we got the green light to restart exports. The rules in place have to be proportionate to the risk and we shouldn’t be afraid of relaxing them when new science indicates it is safe to do so.”