Small firms get OK to de-bone older carcasses

Butchers’ shops and small abattoirs have been given clearance to remove the vertebral column from cattle aged over 24 months, helping to protect margins for most beef producers.

Vertebral column currently has to be removed in the UK at 30 months.

But once the date based export scheme goes at the end of April, the meat industry will have to start taking it out at 24 months, in line with EU rules.

The fear was that this would have to be done in licensed cutting plants, adding to costs.

But the Food Standards Agency last week accepted that small abattoirs and butchers’ shops would also be able to perform the task on cattle between 24 and 30 months.

The NFU said that not allowing this derogation would have hit farmers supplying slower maturing cattle.

“Many butchers prefer to buy sides of beef for hanging,” said chief livestock adviser Peter King.

“Without this derogation, the chances are they would have had to buy boxes of beef or sections of carcass.

“Now they will still be able to buy sides for maturing, helping to differentiate their product from the mass market.”

The Meat and Livestock Commission has estimated this premium at about £50m.

Martin Howlett, who finishes Welsh Black and Highland cattle at Deer Park Farm, Callington in Cornwall, said the decision was a victory for common sense.

“My local butcher’s shop in Launceston employs 13 butchers who are well qualified to do the de-boning.”

By allowing the butcher to take whole sides from the abattoir, he would be able to produce more specialised cuts for his customers.

“I’d like them to have gone further and allowed butchers to do the de-boning on cattle over 30 months, too,” said Mr Howlett.

These incur a penalty of about £150 for BSE testing and de-boning.

Norman Bagley, policy director of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said the derogation was hugely important, as two-thirds of cattle were slaughtered at over 24 months in the UK.

With licensed cutting plants charging about 80 a carcass for removing vertebral column, it would have forced many small abattoirs out of business.

The new rule requiring the removal of vertebral column would affect T-bone steaks, he added.

But creative butchery techniques would still enable butchers to sell beef on the bone.