Increased testing for mad cow disease will be introduced next month, in a bid to gauge an accurate picture of the BSE epidemic in the UK. The newly created Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed yesterday that the tests would be conducted on the brains of older cattle, over the age of 30 months.

The EU has recently backed a move to cut the age at which cattle can be considered for “at risk” testing, from 30 months to 24. Britain argued however that EU member states should only test animals under 30 months on a voluntary basis, and that the decision to test should not lead to trade discrimination.

The Food Standards Agency commented: “We support the right of other countries to test all cattle over 24 months, but in UK conditions we do not believe that testing under 30 months would provide additional public health.”

The British government has received some criticism from scientists for failing in the past to test all cattle over 30 months which die on farms, critics arguing that the UK has so far been unable to produce an accurate picture of the scale of the epidemic. Since 1986, nearly 180,000 cases of BSE have been detected in total, and this year another 200 have been found.

Animal health minister Elliot Morley released a statement that commented: “The BSE epidemic continues to decline in Britain along predicted lines. The number of BSE suspects reported so far this year is 45% lower than in the same period last year.”