Defra and the Welsh government have launched a new consultation, exploring the idea of introducing a cut-off date each year, before which sheep submitted for slaughter would not have to have their spinal cords removed.
Currently, the age of a sheep is assessed by “mouthing” – counting its teeth to see if its permanent incisors have come through.
If they have, the animal is assumed to be over 12 months old and has to be split and the spinal cord removed as a food safety measure introduced in 2001 in the wake of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis.
The sheep industry has long argued that this is inaccurate and results in a large number of animals being unnecessarily split – a process that can devalue the carcass by 40% and is said to cost the sector about £24m/year.
In July 2018, the EU Commission agreed that this approach was not necessary, and said the decision could be based on the actual age, or dentition “or as estimated by a method approved by the competent authority”.
Initially, Defra said it would move to a new system, based on a cut-off date of 30 June each year, starting in 2019.
It then delayed the decision, citing fears over the effect it could have on the UK’s trading status in the event of a no-deal Brexit. But now Defra, in partnership with the Welsh government and the Food Standards Agency, is consulting on the same proposal.
Under a new, optional ageing system, “sheep born in the previous calendar year and submitted for slaughter in the calendar year following their birth, before an annual cut-off date of 30 June, would be considered as aged under 12 months and would not require removal of the spinal cord,” it says.
“We see this proposal as a useful one to reduce complexity, costs and burdens in the food chain, without compromising food safety or human or animal health.”
But even though the industry is now being formally consulted, the document makes it clear no final decision has been taken.
“The decision to leave the EU and our potential listing by the EU as a third country must influence our decisions in this area.
“We therefore believe it will be right to take stock following this consultation, to consider whether there would be any risks to our wider meat-trading capability arising from perceptions about the change.”
The consultation asks a series of questions about the extent to which the sheep industry would use the new system (abattoirs would still be able to use the old dentition method of ageing if they preferred), and what would be the expected cost savings.
It is also open to consumers and retailers, who have so far not had an input into the discussions.
The National Sheep Association said it was pleased to see Defra was moving forward on the issue.
“We recognise that implementation might be difficult in the light of Brexit, but we believe the (EU) legislation already covers this, so hopefully the new system will be in place in time for next season,” said a spokesperson.
The consultation closes on 31 October 2019.