Ten years after its introduction, the European Union's embargo on exports of beef from the UK was lifted today (8 March) in a move that the UK's National Beef Association (NBA) told just-food will "break supermarket stranglehold on price".

The ban on the export of UK cattle, beef and beef produce to the EU was introduced in 1996 in response to the high incidence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) cases found in the UK at the time.

Markos Kyprianou, commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said: "The UK has made great strides in tackling this disease, and has met all of the criteria that were set for the lifting of the beef export ban, in line with scientific and veterinary advice. We must now acknowledge this and resume normal trade in this area."

The Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health concluded that the UK has fulfilled the conditions under which the ban could be lifted, laid down by the Commission in its TSE Road Map. These stipulations included proof that the UK was following controls set out by EU legislation and that the incidence of mad cow disease had fallen below a certain level.

Under today's agreement, the UK will be allowed to resume exports of all live animals born after 1 August 1996 and meat and meat products produced after 15 June 2005. The UK will have to adjust its legislation for beef-on-the-bone, reducing its current age limit of 30-months for the removal of the vertebral column to 24-months, bringing it inline with other member states.

The resolution will now go to the European Parliament, which is expected to adopt the measures in about six weeks.

Prior to the ban, the trade generated about GBP675m (US$1.173bn) annually. However, cattle producers are predicting more far-reaching consequences than simply opening up new markets.

"What you've had is a beef industry that has been locked into its domestic market for the past ten years," Robert Forster, chief executive of the NBA told just-food. He explained that the lack of competition had allowed supermarkets to keep prices low, resulting in a situation where "beef sold at less than the cost of production."

It is expected that the most immediate commercial reaction will be in the manufacturing beef market. Beef prices are higher in continental Europe than in the UK, with last week's domestic cull cow average of around GBP1.20 dwkg lower than the GBP1.59 in Germany, GBP1.77 in France, and GBP1.66 in the Netherlands.

"As soon as beef from cows born after July 1996 can be exported in sufficient volume UK prices will move closer to those paid elsewhere and everyone offering an export specification animal will benefit," Forster observed.

UK beef processors have also welcomed the opportunity to sell to a larger market. Quality Meat Scotland interim chairman Donald Biggar said: "The announcement signals a new dawn for our industry which has had to operate under the cloud of an effective ban on a fifth of its market for a decade."

Forster confirmed that "the biggest processors were all active exporters and at least three of the big companies have been greasing the wheels for resuming export."