The UK's Food Standards Agency has said that an effective system to test cattle aged over 30 months (OTM) for BSE before they enter the food chain has now been developed.

Last December, the government announced in principle that the current rule excluding older cattle from the food chain could be replaced with a system by which these animals are tested and then allowed to enter the food chain if the test is negative. The FSA was asked to advise ministers on whether a robust testing system had been developed before the change could take place.

The initial decision to review the rule back in 2002 came about as a result of a steep decline in BSE cases, the number of which continue to fall - from over 36,000 at the peak in 1992 to 82 clinical cases last year. The main BSE control, the removal of Specified Risk Material (SRM) - which removes over 99% of any possible infectivity in cattle - will remain in place. The other key control, the ban on mammalian meat-and-bone-meal being fed to farm animals, is also unchanged and all animals born before August 1996 will continue to be excluded from the food chain. The rule change would bring the UK into line with the rest of the European Union (EU) where testing of cattle other thirty months old has been successfully operating since 2001.

The announcement was welcomed by the UK's Food and Drink Federation, which represents the food and drink industry.

"If this regime is approved by ministers it will bring the UK back into line with fellow (EU) member states by enabling the industry once again to use meat from cattle over thirty months old," said Martin Paterson, the FDF's deputy director general.