Government ministers will announce plans next week to end the Over Thirty Months Scheme, according to sources in the British and Northern Irish red meat sector.
They believe the scheme - designed to prevent older cattle most at risk from BSE from entering the food chain - will be axed sooner rather than later as a sop to rural communities angered by the hunting ban.
National Beef Association chief executive Robert Forster said his sources suggested Defra was poised to make its intentions public soon.
“We are hearing from an awful lot of people that a positive move on OTMS is imminent, but they are not telling us any details,” he said.
Experts say OTMS would be replaced by a scheme to test all cattle aged over 30 months for BSE. While this may seem a daunting prospect, it is commonplace on mainland Europe and, according to Forster, the UK has the testing facilities in place to manage it.
However, NFU livestock advisor Alastair Johnston said it would take some time for OTMS to be phased out altogether. “Even when the decision has been made, it won’t be an overnight change. It will be at least six months before OTMS is phased out, so you are looking at June next year.”
At present, OTMS cattle are culled and the farmer paid 86p/kg deadweight in compensation, which costs the government £360m a year.
If sold into the food chain, producers would fetch better prices. In Ireland such animals are sold for use in processing for 120-140p/kg dw.
Abolition would raise the UK’s self-sufficiency in red meat from 60% now to 80%, said Forster. It could also prompt the European Commission to abolish the Date Based Export Scheme, another BSE throwback which makes it difficult for UK producers to export beef.
Richard Clarke