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Decisions on emergency slaughter

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IF ALL goes according to plan, UK cattle over 30 months of age will again be able to enter the food chain after November 7, when the over-30-months (OTM) rule is replaced with a system involving BSE testing of older cattle. After more than a decade of the OTM scheme, it seems like the end of an era, or at least the start of a new one. Ten years on, it may be hard to remember the time when older cattle entered the food chain as a matter of course or, indeed, the dramatic circumstances in which the scheme was introduced at the height of the BSE crisis in 1996. The move to BSE testing will bring the UK’s arrangements into line with those now applied in the rest of Europe and, despite the uncertainty that still surrounds the science of BSE, the very fact that it is happening is indicative of the progress that has been made in controlling the disease in the UK.

The Government’s decision to switch to a system based on BSE testing follows a detailed risk assessment by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which, in July 2004, advised that the change would be justified on the basis of ‘the foodborne risk to consumers and proportionality in relation to the cost of maintaining the current rule’. The FSA further advised that the OTM rule should not be changed until all the necessary testing arrangements had been put in place and shown to be robust, and various other requirements had been satisfied. The Government announced in September that this was the case and that the new arrangements were expected to come into effect on November 7. Cattle born before August 1, 1996, will continue to be excluded from the food chain and, under the new legislation, it will be an offence to send such cattle to abattoirs producing meat for human consumption.

After 10 years of the OTM rule, the new arrangements will take some getting used to, and ensuring a smooth transition will require clear communication with everyone involved. At a practical level, it will require the full cooperation of farmers, veterinary surgeons and abattoirs, and it will be important that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities if the kind of problems usually associated with change are to be avoided.

As described in a letter in this issue (see pp 423-424), one of the areas in which the arrangements will change relates to emergency slaughter. In line with European food hygiene legislation, new rules on the eligibility of animals subject to emergency slaughter for human consumption come into effect in the UK from the beginning of next year. Under the new rules, only healthy animals that have suffered an accident that prevented transport to the slaughterhouse on animal welfare grounds will be eligible for emergency slaughter for human consumption. This will mean that, in many cases, animals that become diseased or injured and have to be killed on-farm will not be considered eligible for the food chain and will have to be disposed of by other means. The new regulations will place a duty on farmers, as primary producers of food, to play their part in protecting public health by ensuring that only healthy and clean animals are submitted. However, in many cases veterinary surgeons may be called on to assist farmers in determining whether an animal is eligible or not; they will also be involved in providing the necessary certification. Anticipating the new legislation, the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA), in conjunction with the FSA, UK Rural Affairs Departments and the Meat Hygiene Service, has produced guidance for farmers and veterinary surgeons on dealing with the new requirements. The guidance booklet is enclosed with UK copies of this week’s Veterinary Record.

The new rules implementing the European legislation do not come into force until the beginning of January. However, one of the FSA’s prerequisites for replacing the OTM rule with a system based on BSE testing was that guidance on emergency slaughter should be in place and, as is made clear in this issue, it will be encouraging abattoirs processing older cattle after the OTM rule change to accept only those cattle carcases that comply with guidance. The BCVA booklet will therefore be important reading for veterinary surgeons and farmers even before the new hygiene regulations come into effect. Among other things, it gives guidance on whether an animal is fit to travel, methods of slaughter, medicines residues and carcase hygiene; it also includes a useful ‘decision tree’ for dealing with animals that have to be slaughtered on-farm.

One of the consequences of the changes in the OTM rule is that new kinds of decisions on emergency slaughter will have to be made, with important implications for public health. It is never possible to anticipate every eventuality but the BCVA booklet provides useful guidance on factors that will need to be taken into account.

Further copies of the booklet, ‘Guidance for veterinary surgeons and farmers on the slaughter of cattle which are injured or showing signs of abnormalities’, can be obtained by telephone 0845 606 0667, fax 020 8867 3225 or e-mail: foodstandards{at}eclogistics.co.uk. BCVA members can download copies from www.bcva.org.uk

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