A marathon sixteen-hour session between EU agricultural ministers in Brussels has finally resulted in agreement that only cattle aged over 30 months and “at risk” from BSE contamination should be including in a Europe wide testing programme, due to start on 1 January.

Despite being designed to combat flagging consumer confidence, the new disease control measures are actually less stringent than those expected. Since testing began in France, dozens of unexpected cases of mad cow disease have been uncovered and, backed by the European Commission, the country had demanded the implementation of a wider testing programme, to include over six million apparently healthy cows across Europe.

Food safety commissioner David Byrne had also called for an extended programme but this was opposed by Austria and the Nordic countries, leading to accusation that countries where the disease is not a major concern were becoming complacent in enforcing safety controls.

As well as the scope of the disease control, the ministers’ decision also stumbled over the different measures that could be taken. Yesterday (20 November), France had asked for a ban on the use of bonemeal and meat in livestock feed, but this was resisted by Germany and Denmark.

Byrne also demanded yesterday that France should apply the same measures to its export beef as that intended for domestic consumption, halting sales of beef on the bone. In a statement he said: “I need clarification of the measures which France intends to put in place to ensure that its beef exports do not expose consumers in other countries to a higher risk than French consumers.”

The new testing measures have been welcomed by the UK, which is unlikely to be impacted because animals over 30-months will not reach human consumption anyway, and Ireland, where the Minister for Agriculture applauded the common approach to the BSE problem by all EU ministers.