SRM fury as EFSA dithers

Scottish meat leaders are furious at a European decision to delay the lifting of SRM removal restrictions in cattle aged over 24 months.

The Scottish beef industry has written to the European Commission and expressed concern at the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) procrastination in delivering its opinion on the issue.

The joint letter from NFU Scotland and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, addressed to Markos Kyprianou, commissioner for health and consumer protection, voices the Scottish beef industry's frustration, after the news that EFSA's biohaz committee decided to defer its decision, at a private meeting earlier last week

The issue is to be discussed again by the panel on 18 and 19 April and EFSA said it was hoping to make a ruling on that date. A spokesperson for EFSA said: "It is important that experts are given time to address the issues properly and form a conclusion."

Alistair Donaldson, executive manager at SAMW, said the let-ter asks Kyprianou to outline a timetable for action once EFSA publishes its opinion. "If EFSA can be persuaded to publish its opinion in April, then potentially it will take a three-month time frame and restrictions could be lifted by July."

The letter, which has been copied to Scottish agriculture minister Ross Finnie, also calls on the Food Standards Agency to become more proactive in pushing for the lifting of restrictions in cattle aged 24-30 months. "We will be copying the letter and sending it to Scottish MEPs, drawing their attention to the issue and asking them for their support," said Donaldson.

In the letter, the Scottish beef industry said it had supported VC from 24- to 30-month animals on the basis that it was a short-term measure. "The expectation was that the EFSA opinion would be published in September 2006, with a move to 30 months before the year end."

Both NFU Scotland and SAMW said the rigid enforcement has had a considerable impact on UK and Scottish beef with costly distortion to trade, particularly at traditional wholesaler and catering/independent retail butcher level. This, the two bodies said, was due to around 50% of its prime cattle marketing being between 24 and 30 months of age, creating a two-tier market as processors competed to get cattle below the age limit

"The move from 12 to 24 months was a good advantage for the rest of Europe, which prefer to slaughter young bulls, so it does not view the matter with the same urgency as us," said Donaldson.

James Withers, deputy CEO at NFU Scotland, said: "We are still lumbered with a tightened restriction, despite scientific evidence fully supporting a move back to 30 months. The irony of this is that it arose from a process which was supposed to be science-driven.

"There is massive frustration over this in the beef industry, especially as we had been told to expect progress by the end of last year. We cannot accept any more delays to a restriction, which was a political fix in the first place, is distorting trade and goes against scientific evidence. We need this resolved once and for all at the meetings scheduled for April."

Maurice McCartney, director at the British Meat Processors Association, said: "The measure is unfinished business, following the reopening of the export market for beef, and science tells us there is no food safety issue requiring it. We urge everyone to press for its early removal."

An FSA Scotland spokesperson said: "The agency hopes for a positive EFSA opinion to open discussions to move to a harmonised age limit of 30 months for bovine vertebral column becoming SRM."