The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has agreed to recommend to ministers that it would be acceptable on public health grounds to replace the over thirty month (OTM) rule with BSE testing of cattle older than thirty months in two stages.

Cattle born after August 1996 could be allowed into the food chain, after being tested for BSE, at the earliest from January 2004, with the possibility of complete replacement of the rule from July 2005.

The current OTM scheme, introduced in 1996, requires older cattle to be destroyed rather than used for beef. The scheme is estimated to cost £360m (US$584.7m) annually in administration and lost sales to British farmers, reported the Independent.

The board said that because of the need for effective implementation of the proposed changes, ministers should not change the OTM rule until they were satisfied that the necessary preparations had been made by the relevant Government departments, industry and other agencies throughout the UK.

Sir John Krebs, chair of the FSA board, said: “Variant CJD is a terrible disease and in reviewing the controls the Agency has to ensure that public health is effectively protected.

“We have examined the evidence thoroughly and listened carefully during the consultation. We have had to balance the possibility of a very small increase in risk from a move to testing, with the very large costs associated with the OTM rule.”