5 April 2002

Export hopes grow as BSE incidence in UK cattle falls

By Philip Clarke Europe editor

SIX EU countries have more BSE in their younger cattle than the UK does, strengthening the case for a rapid relaxation in the rules surrounding the Date-Based Export Scheme (DBES).

According to recent Brussels figures, the incidence of BSE in British cattle born in 1996 – the year in which the meat-and-bonemeal ban became fully effective – comes to 5.6 cases/million. That compares with 25 in Portugal, 13.5 in Germany, 12.6 in Ireland, 8.0 in Belgium, 7.6 in Spain and 6.1 in Holland.

"We expect these figures to move even further in the UKs favour over the next two years, because potentially infected MBM was still present in feed sold to elsewhere in the EU until Octover 2000," says National Beef Association export chairman Keith Redpath.

"In these circumstances, it is wrong for the UK to be singled out for special treatment."

The greatest block to beef exports under DBES is the requirement for the whole abattoir to be dedicated to the scheme, with no processing allowed for the domestic market. Currently no abattoirs are exporting.

However, an application has been made in Brussels by the UK government to allow daily or weekly dedication to the scheme, which would make it a more viable proposition.

"Much will depend on the findings of a commission inspection visit planned for May," says Helene Judge of the Meat and Livestock Commissions Brussels office.

"They will be looking at the whole range of safeguards and will be reporting to the scientific committee on animal health and welfare. In the past our record has been robust, but there have been one or two recent glitches."

If the report is favourable, a proposal to allow time dedication of plants is likely in September. But it could still run into opposition from some member states – notably France.

It will argue that no one knows the true incidence of BSE in the UK because over-30-month cattle are not routinely tested as they are on the Continent.

DEFRA estimates that, if there was full testing, it would only throw up another 10-12 cases/year. "That is just another 2-3 cases/million cattle and makes no material difference to our argument based on low incidence," says NBA chief executive Robert Forster.

He believes other member states will not be too harsh in resisting the scientific case, for fear of being subject to the same tough DBES conditions themselves.