Northern Ireland has submitted an application for BSE negligible risk status, which it hopes will open up new market opportunities for the beef sector.
At the moment, Northern Ireland has controlled risk status for BSE, as does Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
But agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen has submitted an application to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) asking for this to be relaxed. Scotland is also looking at going down the same route.
Ms McIlveen said: “There is considerable support for the view that if we could secure BSE negligible risk status, it could help improve our global image as a disease-free area and possibly provide access to new markets across the world for our premium exports.”
The minister stressed that the views of all stakeholders, including retailers and consumers, had been considered throughout the consultation process.
The Department of Health and Food Standards Agency had also been involved from an early stage to advise from a public health perspective, she said.
A public consultation which ran from 21 March until 13 June 2016 showed strong industry support for the application.
The Ulster Farmers Union said BSE remained a considerable concern for some countries, including China, the US, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, yet they had the potential to deliver a trade worth £12m/yr.
Negligible risk status would allow Northern Ireland to present a more positive image of its animal health status, it said.
It might also allow for existing trade agreements to be renegotiated, for example removing the clause that cattle must be under 30 months of age.
Reducing the amount of Specified Risk Material (SRM) which requires disposal is another attraction as this could reduce costs.
The change to NR status would mean a considerable reduction in the volume of tissues designated as SRM with only the brain, skull, eyes and spinal cord needing to be destroyed.
The downside of this is any reduction in SRM could force the closure of one of NI’s rendering plants.
This has raised the fear that the remaining plant will use its monopoly to increase remaining rendering costs on farmers for fallen stock.
But the UFU said if this was to happen and farmers faced unfair prices it would expect the competition authorities to step in.