24 May 2002


Proposals by France to insist on the removal of spinal

cord from lamb carcasses will hit the backbone of

UK production hard. Simon Wragg reports

ON JULY 1, a draconian and illegal rule is expected to be enforced by French officials that will send a shockwave through the UK lamb trade.

The French are calling for the removal of spinal cord material from all lambs over six months old that are exported as carcasses to its shores. Described as a food safety measure, the regulation is illegal; a restriction on trade not sanctioned or approved by or through the EU Commission.

The ramifications are extensive. According to David Croston, MLC head of sheep strategy, the UK industry will really feel the heat in autumn. "Although we have to assume the French will adhere to the intention to introduce this rule on Jul 1, most British lambs – particularly those off the hills – wont be six months old until September/October."

But ageing lambs accurately is almost impossible. With no individual passport or ID system for UK lambs, how do exporters convince French processors lambs are under six months old? "Its a real problem," he admits.

"Even if industry could give a guarantee from flock records, it is unlikely meat inspection officials would rubber stamp documents to that effect; it cant easily be proved."

Already, MLC officials have started talks with lamb exporters to encourage the introduction of audit trails to offer as a guarantee, despite concerns over proving the age of individual lambs.

Setting bureaucratic difficulties aside, the practical implications of removing spinal cord will add significantly to export processors costs, explains Mr Croston. "Certainly, plant throughput will be much lower and that has a knock-on effect with overhead costs.

"But thats assuming there is machinery able to carry out spinal cord removal to the degree the French are insisting on. Unfortunately, thats not the case," he warns.

UK exporters have been splitting ewe carcasses for several years to remove spinal cord material after BSE – a move that initially saw cull ewe prices crash – but systems often fall short on efficiency.

"Its not that exporters arent up to the job – more a case that theres no machinery on the market technically able to remove spinal cord to the level the French are demanding. Its normally sucked out using a vacuum machine." (see picture).

"We are looking at a development from Spain which could increase efficiency from 90% to nearer 99%, but whether it works or will be acceptable to the French is still a matter of considerable debate."

Processors are already deeply troubled by the French stance. According to Mike Gooding of Farmers Fresh, the idea of spinal cord removal for lambs is, without doubt, a bar on trade. "It would be a disaster," he says emphatically.

"At the very least we could be looking at doubling the time to process carcasses for export. It would set UK industry on a completely uncompetitive footing," he warns.

In 2000 – the latest data on exports not affected by the disruption of foot-and-mouth – 69,500t sheepmeat was exported to France from the UK, accounting for 77% of total sheepmeat exports. Of the 69,500t, 90% was in carcass form.

"The situation could change. MLC is working with both NFU and the British Office in Brussels to inform MEPs of the implications in the hope of influencing the EU Commission."

MLC has also been working with DEFRAs beef and sheep division with the expectation that at least politicians on this side of the Channel will be educated on the implications of the illegal legislation.

If political pressure cannot deter the imposition of the spinal cord ruling then lamb exporters may be forced to comply to safeguard markets.

"Many will be dragged to the party begrudgingly," adds Mr Croston. "If technology is less than 100% efficient, exporters may be tempted to use the best available in the hope that less rigorous inspection of carcasses in France doesnt detect any remaining material.

"What we still dont know is the penalty for discovering spinal cord. It could be fines; it could be confiscation of loads. There are still many uncertainties," says Mr Croston.

The alternative would be for exporters to process lambs into primal joints and sell direct to French retailers, effectively cutting out French cutting plants. It is a move producers, such as Adam Quinney, hope will be considered.

Farming on the Warks/Worcs border, his late lambing flock of 400 Lleyn ewes would be affected by the proposals. "The most annoying aspect is the blatant way this measure has been put forward without EU consent or scientific backing."

As a member of the NFUs sheep working group, Mr Quinney suspects many UK producers have been too busy lambing to give the consequences much thought.

"I would appeal to every producer to write to their local MEP and demand action.

"The effect of the French ruling would be another nail in the coffin of the UK sheep sector. Prices could be hit. A drop of a few pence/kg is likely to push some producers over the edge," he warns.

An alternative for the processing sector is to get French cutting plants to accept responsibility for removing spinal cord material once carcasses have arrived on the Continent. "It would be a way forward, but just how likely it is remains to be seen," adds Mr Quinney. &#42

&#8226 Called for by French.

&#8226 Lambs over six months.

&#8226 Threatens export trade.

Should the French have their way, spinal cords will need to be removed from lambs over six months old.

But is the technology there?