8 March 2002

BSErisk measures are

threat to sheep future

By Isabel Davies

and Philip Clarke

THE British sheep industry could be hit by a range of measures, designed to protect against the risk of BSE in sheep, but which farmers fear threaten the future viability of the sector.

France is threatening unilateral action to force the removal of spinal cord from all sheep over six-months which exporters say would be "disastrous".

Meanwhile, a special Food Standards Agency stakeholder group is considering whether to recommend more safeguards in the UK, based on the precautionary principle.

Although the group is yet to formulate any formal proposals it is known to be discussing a series of options which it will put to the FSA board in May.

These include a ban on sheep over 12-months going into the food chain, removal of intestines or a requirement to remove lymph nodes from meat before sale. Removing lymph nodes could involve deboning.

Speaking at the Alimentaria Food Fair in Barcelona this week, Peter Hardwick, Meat and Livestock Commission export manager, explained fears have been rising that the French will introduce the spinal cord measure this summer.

France had intended it to apply from Jan 2, 2002. Initially the EU Commission had blocked the move demanding a full scientific justification from the French food safety body AFSSA.

But recent scientific opinions on BSE and TSEs in Brussels had failed to comment on the issue. "This is extremely worrying," said Mr Hardwick. "The French may interpret this as a signal to go ahead with their ban on spinal cord anyway."

Owen Owen, owner of two Cig Mon Group abattoirs in Wales, said the measure – which could arrive in July – would devalue the carcass and push up the costs.

"Splitting the lamb carcass devalues it immensely," he said. British lamb would arrive at wholesalers in two halves with "stale cuts" and would have to compete against whole French carcasses.

Referring to the ideas mooted by the FSA group, John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said they went beyond what he would consider reasonable as there was still not one shred of evidence of BSE in sheep.

Peter Scott, secretary general of the British Meat Federation, called for changes to be proportionate to the level of risk.

If a decision was taken to remove lymph nodes from animals it could very quickly make them non-viable because it would add costs. "And if you keep adding costs then you are going to draw in more imports," he warned.

The FSA and junior DEFRA minister Lord Whitty played down the significance of reports. "There are no recommendations from the FSA at the moment. We must wait and see what the science says," he said.

Lord Whitty also indicated that if France acted unilaterally he would push the EU Commission to take France to the European Court. &#42