The National Sheep Association (NSA) has written to all 73 newly elected and re-elected MEPs, plus the 39 outgoing representatives, drawing their attention to a £23 million annual bill burdening sheep farmers due to one single piece of EU legislation.
NSA published a report on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) earlier this year, revealing the true cost of the BSE hangover to the sheep sector. The report was sent to key figures within DG-SANCO and the European Food Safety Authority, who developed and informed the current TSE legislation, and has now been sent to MEPs to encourage them to lobby on the matter.
Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, says: “NSA has thoroughly investigated the cost of TSE regulations, and specifically the requirement to split carcases of older lambs and sheep, and has found it costs the UK sheep sector more than £23 million per year. The regulations causing this phenomenal and unnecessary cost were a result of the BSE crisis back in the 1990s, but the differences between BSE in cattle and TSEs (scrapie) in sheep means the rules around sheep were never based in scientific fact. The biggest frustration for lamb producers has come in recent years when BSE cattle legislation has been relaxed but sheep farmers have been apparently forgotten and continue to carry a huge regulatory and financial burden.”
TSE rules laid down by Europe require carcases to be split and the spinal cord removed if lambs are old enough to have their first pair of permanent teeth, creating costs in auction markets where teeth have to be checked for, in abattoirs by slowing down the slaughter line to split carcases, and in processing facilities by devaluing the carcase because it is not whole. This amounts to more than £23m each and every year, which is directly or indirectly passed back to the farmer.
Mr Stocker continues: “£23m is an incredible amount of money to lose every year and does not even take into consideration the value of the export markets currently closed to the UK because of the negative connotations of us having TSE regulations in place – the presence of rules suggests the presence of disease when in fact the exact opposite is true. With more than one-third of UK-produced lamb already sold to Europe and around of the world, maintaining and growing this export market is vital in ensuring the sheep sector continues to contribution to the British economy in a very meaningful way.
“The UK voting public gave a very clear mandate at the European election to revisit the relationship between UK and Europe, and NSA strongly believes the reassessment of burdensome regulations such as those surrounding TSEs would go a long way towards removing the negative elements of our relationship with the EU. Many positive things come out of Europe, and UK sheep farmers would certainly not want to lose access to the single market, but we have to move away from a situation where regulations passed by European quickly become set in stone when it is vital they evolve as and when new evidence and science is developed, ensuring they are always based on risk and fact.”
The NSA report makes five step-by-step recommendations, from relaxation of TSE legislation through to complete removal of the need to split carcaes. It has been endorsed by Patrick Wall, Associate Professor of Public Health in University College Dublin’s School of Public Health and Population Sciences, former Chief Executive of the Irish Food Safety Authority and former Chairman of the European Food Safety Authority.
Mr Wall says: “Food safety regulations need to be based on accurate risk assessment and be proportionate to the risk to human health. There is now sufficient scientific evidence to warrant a dramatic review of the TSE controls in sheep. Concerns regarding the public health threat that might emerge associated with TSE sheep no longer exist so public funds devoted to TSE controls in sheep should be reallocated to other areas in the food chain where there is a real, rather than a perceived, risk to human health to deliver benefits in terms of consumer protection.”
NSA is supported in its stance on TSE regulations by the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), Livestock Auctioneers Association (LAA), National Beef Association (NBA), National Farmers Union (NFU), NFU Scotland, Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) and Ulster Farmers Union (UFU).
Charles Sercombe, NFU Livestock Board Chairman, says: “The NFU has worked on this issue for a long time and we support NSA efforts to once again highlight this to policy makers. Yesterday we took a paper to the European Commission with widespread support from other Member States which called for a change in sheep splitting regulations to reduce cost and red tape."
Derek Morgan, FUW Hill Farming and Marginal Land Committee Chairman, says: “The precautionary approach made complete sense in the early days but we are now in a far more informed position where all the evidence points towards the need to relax rules which are outdated, costly and wasteful. The EU needs to wake up to the fact that draconian and disproportionate rules such as these do nothing but undermine its reputation at a time when public confidence in the EU is on the floor across all Member States.”
Ian Anderson, SAMW Executive Director, says: “SAMW fully supports this report, We have been pressing for these changes for several years, as neither a risk based nor proportional approach has been applied to the issue. We hope the science will be followed and changes justified.”
Stephen Lomax of AIMS says: “AIMS believes, after many millions of negative samples, we can be sure BSE does not occur naturally in sheep and all ovine specified risk material (SRM) controls should cease as soon as possible. There has also never been any justification for discriminatory TSE SRM controls in UK abattoirs over and above EU legal requirements and these should cease at once. UK sheep meat is stigmatised because FSA and our Government are not aggressively campaigning for repeal of EU ovine TSE measures and suggest there is additional risk in the UK by maintaining additional domestic legislation.”