Shoppers and diners have shown their mettle by not over-reacting to a recent warning over the safety of meat from older sheep and goats, according to the NFU.

Robin Tapper praised the lack of panic reaction to recent FSA advice that linked sheep and goat meat with an atypical form of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy scrapie, which affects small ruminants. He also slammed the FSA advice as unscientific.

FSA scientists admitted there was no evidence of a threat to human health, but refused to exclude a theoretical risk. Its board then released notes from discussions in mid-June which said the only way to eliminate risk was to stop eating older sheep and goat meat.

Atypical scrapie may have been in the flock for many years, but advances in surveillance technology make it easier to detect and it has been found in 80,000 of the UK's 17 million-strong breeding flock.

The FSA has commissioned more research, but meanwhile is considering whether a ban on older animals in the food chain would be appropriate.

The burgeoning popularity of high quality mutton in restaurants, spearheaded by Prince Charles' Mutton Rennaissance group, does not seem to have been affected by the news.

A spokeswoman said she had received just one call from a concerned sheep farmer. "It is a quality product that's fully traceable and not simply a by-product of the lamb industry."

But most of the 3-4 million head of sheep that go into the human food chain are used to make ready meals and processed goods, especially for the halal and ethnic markets.

John Thorley at the National Sheep Association said the only effect had been a temporary drop in the price of old ewes. "I think people have realised the the FSA approach is oversensitive to the precautionary principle," he said.