21 September 2001

Easing of OTMS rules on cards?

By Alistair Driver

CATTLE farmers have received a much-needed boost after the government outlined its commitment to getting older cattle back into the food chain.

But they have been warned that political unease across the EUcould hamper change.

In a speech penned for the Beef 2001 event on Friday (Sept 14), junior farm minister Lord Whitty said the Food Standards Agency is currently reviewing the over thirty month (OTM) rule.

"Subject to the views of SEAC [the governments BSE advisers] and our European partners there is a prospect that beef from older animals may be allowed back on to our tables," he wrote in the speech that was not delivered because of the US terrorist attack.

This would help farmers and reduce the Over Thirty Month Schemes "massive cost" to the taxpayer, he wrote. The government currently spends £400m a year on the scheme.

National Beef Association chief executive Robert Forster said the low incidence of BSE in animals born after UK feed rules were tightened in August 1996 – just five cases have been confirmed – means there is a strong case for change.

The FSA review will use the results of an extensive BSE testing programme to get a better picture.

SEAC is due to examine the review early next year before deciding whether to recommend allowing older cattle born after a chosen date after Aug 96 back into the food chain. All animals over 30-months-old would have to be tested, as in other member states.

Speaking at a SEAC meeting on Tuesday (Sept 18), SEAC member Roy Anderson said there are strong grounds for relaxing the rule. But he warned that the political climate may not be right.

If the government does put in a request to the EU next year, it could be blocked by other member states still reeling from their own BSE crises, the Meat and Livestock Commission warned.

"You cant underestimate the negative feeling everyone has about the UK and its disease problems," Helene Judge in the MLCs Brussels office said. Other countries still focus on weekly BSE figure not animals born after Aug 1996. &#42

The government will also have to persuade the UK public. A Consumers Association spokeswoman demanded a full consultation. "We would be opposed to relaxing the rule unless the situation had changed significantly," she said. A British Retail Consortium spokesman said: "Retailers will be happy to sell the product only if the public wants to buy it."