Huge drain on sheep industry is discussed in meeting between stakeholders and government officials

More than 30 representatives from the sheep sector and UK governments met on Thursday (5th February) at a meeting instigated by the National Farmers Union (NFU) and National Sheep Association (NSA). They came together to discuss and agree an industry proposal to rid lamb producers of a cumbersome and financially draining regulation.

NSA and NFU have been pushing for reform of the EU rules on TSEs and carcase splitting, and while undoing layers of red tape laid down by Europe is a slow process, the two organisations believe more immediate gains can be made by changing the UK implementation of the rules.

Charles Sercombe, NFU Livestock Board Chairman, says: “Carcase splitting costs our industry a huge amount of money, not just through devaluing the carcase but also time spent mouthing sheep in markets and abattoirs. It causes a great deal of uncertainty for farmers, auctioneers, processors and retailers. While we strongly believe the practice of splitting carcases is not necessary at all, an immediate improvement could be made by revisiting the way we decide whether carcases are split.”

Current European regulation on TSEs requires spinal cord to be removed from sheep of more than 12 months of age or which have one permanent incisor erupted through the gum. UK domestic regulation, which is an interpretation of the larger EU ruling, requires carcases to be split for the removal of spinal cord and currently uses the mouthing of sheep as the mechanism to determine which carcases need to be split. Mouthing of sheep to determine age was the best option when the TSE rules first came in, but since then sheep identification systems have moved on considerably.

Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, explains: “Sheep identification rules for the whole of the UK state that lambs are deemed to be 12 months old from 30th June each calendar year. It is impossible to record individual birth dates for all lambs born, so this calendar date provides a clear cut-off that farmers can work to and which the EU has accepted as suitable for the UK situation. Using this same calendar date for deciding when carcases are split will remove a great deal of confusion from the food chain.”

NFU and NSA believe changing to a calendar date will not necessarily reduce the number of carcases being split, but will provide some much needed clarity for everyone involved and remove the cost of mouthing sheep.

Mr Sercombe continues: “Mouthing sheep is an arbitrary and subjective measure that creates cost and confusion. It leads to animals under 12 months being split that shouldn’t, and animals over 12 months not being split that should. Moving to a calendar date of 30th June will mean some animals slightly over 12 months will not be split, but no more so than within the current system, and with huge advantages for everyone involved. We are confident it provides Europe with the food safety requirements that they dictate.”

During the meeting the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, British Meat Processors Association, Eblex, Farmers Union of Wales, Hybu Cig Cymru, Livestock Auctioneers Association, NFU Cymru, NFU Scotland, Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, Sheep Veterinary Society and Ulster Farmers Union all joined NFU and NSA in supporting the proposal.

Officials in Defra, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and DARD in Northern Ireland, as well as the Food Standards Agency in all four nations, also welcomed the sheep industry’s initiative aimed at bringing greater certainty to the determination of an animal’s age for purposes of spinal cord removal.

Mr Stocker says: “We still have a long way to go with this, and over the coming months NSA and NFU will be working hard, with help from FSA, to develop an approach which UK Ministers can support for implementing a new system that benefits the whole food chain.”

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