Sheep farmers are growing increasingly hopeful of securing a change to post-slaughter rules which they forecast would save them more than £24m in devalued stock every year.
Pressure is mounting on the European Commission to alter lamb carcass splitting rules in what many in the industry believe is a decision that is well overdue.
Richmond’s Conservative MP Rishi Sunak said he was pressing UK ministers to strike a deal in Brussels, following years of lobbying on the issue by both the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the National Sheep Association (NSA).
Current EU-wide rules exist to prevent and eradicate transmissible brain diseases – or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies – such as BSE. The rules stipulate that spinal cords must be removed from slaughtered animals that are either more than a year old or have one permanent incisor.
All lambs have to be checked for the presence of permanent incisors – a process known as ‘mouthing’ – before they leave farms for slaughter.
But under this system, which was introduced in 2000 as a response to the BSE crisis, farmers are losing millions of pounds a year on devalued stock.
And the rules continue to exist without any evidence to suggest that BSE is transferable from cattle to sheep. Likewise, no evidence has been found that scrapie – a similar disease to BSE which can affect sheep – poses any risk to humans.
Instead of the mouthing system, the sheep sector wants to use May 31 each year as a cut-off point, with lambs slaughtered after that date split for their spinal cord to be removed.
Mr Sunak said the change would not only save the industry money, but would boost exports and would make UK lamb production more predictable and more competitive.
The MP said mouthing was “needless”, adding: “Despite there being no evidence of BSE crossing species from cattle to sheep in field conditions, nor evidence that scrapie poses any risk to human health, sheep farmers in my constituency are being burdened with damaging red tape.
“While bio-security needs to be taken seriously, the regulations are ripe for simplification.”
North Yorkshire farmer and the NFU’s regional livestock board chairman, Richard Findlay, said he was confident the rules would soon be changed.
“We expect it will be rubber-stamped in time to be brought in for next year,” Mr Findlay said. “At this time of the year it becomes a real issue with lambs. We still have a lot left that will go through in April and it’s a real hassle checking their teeth, even then we still have one or two put aside at the abattoir which means we get half the price for them.”
Phil Stocker, the NSA’s chief executive, said: “Since the BSE crisis we have seen a lot of regulations relating to cattle relaxed and the sheep sector has been left behind.
“We have got full industry approval for the changes and support from the Government and the Food Standards Agency but I would not say that it is just a matter of getting it rubber-stamped at European level. We still have some convincing to do.”