HC Deb 02 November 1998 vol 318 cc425-6W
Mr. Steen

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will lift the over-thirty- months scheme weight limit for beef cattle imposed in August 1997. [55922]

Mr. Rooker

We currently have no plans to remove the weight limit on payments under the Over-Thirty-Months Scheme. The scheme rules and rates of payment are in any case set not by the Government but by the European Commission.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has had with farmers about the difficulties in fattening calves sufficiently by the age of 30 months; if he will allow calves of up to 36 months to enter the food chain; on what scientific evidence the age limit was set at 30 months; and if he will make a statement. [56557]

Mr. Rooker

In most circumstances, beef production systems can be adapted quite easily to enable producers to finish cattle at under thirty months of age and farmers' leaders have not suggested to us that there is any real problem in doing so. However, the Beef Assurance Scheme, which was introduced in September 1996 in response to representations from specialist breeders, enables Scheme animals to be slaughtered for human consumption up to 42 months of age, subject to very strict conditions.

The controls were introduced after the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) recommended, on 20 March 1996, that the carcases from cattle over 30 months should also be deboned and the trimmings classified as Specified Bovine Offals (SBOs). The basis for the 30 months age point was that it was half the way through the average incubation period of the disease. Evidence at the time from scrapie experiments in animal models indicated that it was after this point that infectivity was expected to enter the central nervous system (CNS) where the infectivity would rise to much higher levels than in other infected tissues. Consequently, cattle over the age of thirty months were considered to represent a much higher risk to consumers than younger animals. Very few animals below this age showed signs of clinical disease. The then Government went further than the advice to debone and, with the subsequent exception of Beef Assurance Scheme animals, all cattle over 30 months were prevented from entering the food chain. To date, no further scientific information has been available which has caused SEAC to change its advice.

The Government have at present no plans to modify the rule but, as with all BSE control measures, it is being kept under review. Any decision to change the 30 months age limit will be taken in the light of progress with the eradication of BSE and of further advice from SEAC. The effective operation of the rule is a condition of the Florence Agreement on the lifting of the beef export ban. Any change would therefore require the agreement of the European Commission and other Member States.