Ed Bedington
Food safety bosses have taken another step closer to lifting the ban of Over Thirty Month beef entering the food chain.
The OTM rule was introduced following the BSE crisis in a bid to reduce the number of high risk animals being consumed.
However, the Food Standards Agency held a public meeting last week as part of its review, set up in July 2002, to decide whether the OTM rule is still necessary.
Sir John Krebs, chairman of the FSA, said: "The public meeting has been an important step. It is essential that any decisions are based on a thorough scientific assesment of risk. In this case, there is a consensus that the risk from BSE has declined dramatically."
The options that are emerging as most appropriate, both from the meeting and the review, include the complete removal of the OTM rule, or allowing animals born after August 1, 1996, when the ban on feeding meat and bone meal became effective, back into the food chain.
The news has been welcomed by farming leaders. The NFU's deputy president, Tim Bennett, said the review was a demonstration of the effectiveness of the UK's BSE control measures.
"This is tangible recognition of the safety of our beef," he added.
However, the National Beef Association, while welcoming the news, called for an orderly exit from the OTM scheme.
Robert Robinson said: "The tonnages involved are daunting and the authorities must make sure the sheer weight of additional beef does not provoke a market collapse.
The next stage of the FSA review will involve a 12 week formal written consultation beginning at the end of March. The outcome will then be discussed by the FSA board in July, and recommendations then made to ministers.