The Food Standards Agency (FSA) yesterday advised the UK government that the country has developed an effective system to test cattle aged over30 months for BSE before they enter the food chain. The government will now decide whether to relax the safety rules, allowing older cattle to be sold on the market for food. The rule change would bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU, where a testing system for cattle over thirty-months-old has been operating since 2001. The release of more cattle for food consumption would be important for the EU market. For the first time in 20 years consumption of beef and veal surpassed EU production in 2003 and is expected togrow further by 2012, according to a forecast report by the European Commission. The report forecasts beef and veal production will decrease to around 7.6m tonnes by 2012, in line with the structural reduction of the bloc's dairy herd and the impact of the introduction of thesingle farm payment. A tight domestic supply and a steady demand means food processors will have to rely on more imports entering at full duty, notably from South America. EU food processors margins are being substantially hurt by the rising cost of meat supplies and other inputs this year. The EU is also considering relaxing its restrictions on UK beef. Citing the steep decrease in the incidence of BSE within the UK and throughout the rest of the EU, the European Commission proposeslifting the additional restrictions the bloc put on imports of most live cattle and beef products from the UK. However the Commission would still require meat to be deboned and the exclusion of cattle aged over 30 months from export to the rest of the EU and overseas. The UK's proposed testing system hasbeen examined by the Commission, which could then make further concessions. Under the UK's proposed system the current rule banning meat from most animals over 30 months would be replaced with the new testing regime. The new system might increase UK-based beef productionby about 25 per cent, putting more supplies on the market. Last December, the government announced in principle that the current rule excluding older cattle from the food chain could be replaced with a BSE testing system. However rigorous rules will still remain in place to keep BSE out of the food chain. Under the proposed regime carcasses will not be allowed to leave abattoirs until they have tested negative. The main BSE control, the removal of specified parts, including spinal cords, will remain in place. This removes over 99% of any possible infectivity in cattle, will remain in place. Farmers will still be restricted from selling animals born before August 1996, when the UK introduced strict rules governing cattle feed. They will continue to be banned from using feed containingmammalian meat-and-bone. The FSA advised government to also establish: a review group to scrutinise and advise on the implementation and roll out of the testing system for its first year of operation; regularly scheduled visits by official veterinarians to every fresh meat plant processing cattle over 30 months old; and new legislation making it an offence for a producer to send animals born before August 1996 for human consumption. The Food and Drink Federation's deputy director general, Martin Paterson, said the relaxation of the rules would provide relief for the processors who depend on a ready supply of beef. "If this regime is approved by ministers it will bring the UK back into line with fellow (EU) member states by enabling the industry once again to use meat from cattle over thirty months old,"he stated in a press release. Before the BSE crisis in 1986, the UK's beef exports were worth about £1bn (€1.5bn) compared to £20m (€29m) last year, according to Food from Britain, a consultancy. Farmers have received compensation under a scheme that costs the government around €528m a year. The BSE epidemic was first recognised in the UK in 1986. At its peak in 1992, a total of 37,280 cases were discovered in UK cattle. So far this year the UK remains at the top of the BSE list, with66 cases confirmed, indicating that the total for the year could fall by about 60 per cent. Spain has reported 52 cases so far this year, Ireland 37 cases and Portugal 13 cases. Germany and Francehave so far not reported any incidents of BSE. Poland reported 11 cases of BSE last year and has so far discovered another 11 cases this year. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Ireland found 126 cases of BSE in its cattle last year, compared with137 found in Spain. The UK had the highest incidence of BSE cases in the world last year with 343 cases confirmed, followed by Spain, Ireland. Portugal is fourth in the BSE league, reporting 92 casesin 2004, followed by Germany with 65 cases. France reported 54 cases of BSE last year.