The move paves the way for an increased supply of beef into the EU market and could potentially lower prices for food processors. 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 to grow further by 2012, according to a forecast report by the Commission.
Before the BSE crisis in 1986, the UK's beef exports were worth about £1bn (€1.5bn) compared to £20m (€29m) in 2004, according to Food from Britain, a consultancy.
At a meeting today the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health voted unanimously to adopt the Commission's proposal to lift the embargo. The Commission expects to adopt the proposal in about six weeks time, as the European Parliament has a one month right of scrutiny. The Parliament can vote to reject the proposal.
Peter Scott, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said the unanimous vote signaled a very positive outcome for the industry. However he noted that national legislation in France and Germany will have to be changed before the UK can export there.
A lot of the UK's older cattle and beef on the bone was exported to France, Scott said. Both countries put in place their own national legislation banning British beef as an addition to the EU embargo.
"That's the reason I'm not hitting the roof with joy," he told FoodProductionDaily.com. "There's a lot of politics involved."
However he was hopeful that France-based food processors might push government to rescind national laws quickly.
Scott said he did not expect the release of UK beef on to the EU market would drive down prices. Producers of quality beef, especially those in Scotland, might have to lower prices a bit to gain back export markets he said.
"There has been a 10-year gap," he said. "It takes time to recover."
He also noted that quality beef exporters see Italy as a growing market for their products.
Regular beef exports to the bloc would help to underpin the current price level as there is a shortage of beef in the region, he said.
"Since November we have be able to release more beef for sale in the UK and the domestic price has held up well," he noted. "The dire predictions that prices would tumble did not occur."
The ban on the export of UK beef was issued in March 1996, due to the high incidence of BSE cases in the UK at the time. In 1999, the ban was amended to allow de-boned beef and beef products from the UK produced under the date-based export scheme (DBES) to be exported.
Under the DBES, the UK could export beef and products from cattle born after 1 August 1996, subject to a series of strict and limited conditions. These included requirements that the animal was between six and 30 months old, had been clearly traced and identified throughout its lifetime, its mother did not develop BSE, and that beef from cattle older than nine months was de-boned. In practice, the DBES did not result in the export any significant amount of UK beef.
The European Commission recommended removal of the embargo proposal was made on the basis that the UK has fulfilled the conditions laid down by the Commission in its July 2005 plan to ease controls throughout the bloc as BSE cases fall.
Once the proposal is adopted and published in the Commission's Official Journal, the UK will be able to export live cattle born after 1 August 1996, and bovine meat and products produced after 15 June 2005, under the same terms as other member states.
As a condition for the lifting of the embargo the UK had to have incidents of BSE below 200 cases per million animals. Secondly, the EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) would have to deliver a favourable report on the enforcement of BSE controls in the UK and its compliance with EU legislation.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued an opinion in May 2004, confirming that BSE incidence in the UK was below 200 cases per million, and therefore not anymore considered a high BSE risk country.
In June 2005, an inspection carried out by the EU Food and Veterinary Office confirmed that BSE controls were being properly enforced in the UK, and that its compliance with EU legislation, particularly in relation to identification and registration of bovine animals and testing, was satisfactory.
The EU meat-and-bonemeal feed ban entered into effect on 1 August 1996. Under EU legislation, no cattle born before this date are allowed enter the food chain under any circumstances. UK meat and meat products produced after 15 June 2005 will also be allowed to be traded freely.
The UK will have to adjust its legislation for beef-on-the-bone, and reduce its current age limit of 30 months for the removal of the vertebral column to 24 months. This will bring it in line with the 24 month rule applied by all other member states and set the UK on equal footing in terms of trade, the Commission stated.
Brain-wasting Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), popularly known as mad cow disease, can spread to humans. About 150 people in the EU fell victim to the human form of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, after eating meat from infected cattle.
In the EU, BSE incidents have been falling dramatically since control measures were put in place.
In the 12 month period to the end of October 2005, a total of 482 cases of BSE were detected in cattle throughout the bloc, according to the latest figures released by the Commission. The UK had the highest incident of BSE, reporting 193 cases of the disease in cattle, followed by Spain with 86 cases, Ireland with 64, Portugal with 43, Germany with 34, France with 28, and Poland with 16. All other countries reported cases in the single digits or no cases at all.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Ireland found 126 cases of BSE in its cattle in 2004, compared with 137 found in Spain. The UK had the highest incidence of BSE cases in the world in 2004 with 343 cases confirmed, followed by Spain, Ireland. Portugal was fourth in the BSE league, reporting 92 cases in 2004, followed by Germany with 65 cases. France reported 54 cases of BSE in the same year.
The declines show that extensive testing and controls programmes put in place are helping to bring down incidences of the disease. 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.