Sheep age decision ‘good news’ for sector

Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson

A decision by the European Commission Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed to relax requirements relating to the ageing of sheep has been welcomed as ‘good news for the sector’.

The decision will enable the UK government to work with the sheep industry to implement a cut-off date to estimate whether a sheep is under 12 months or not. Current rules require that mouths are checked and the carcases of sheep thought to be over 12 months are split to remove the spinal cord, something that devalues the carcase.

Crosby Cleland

Crosby Cleland

Ulster Farmers’ Union beef and lamb chairman, Crosby Cleland said: “Existing sheep TSE regulations have required that sheep be mouthed prior to slaughter and this has been a major inconvenience for some time. It is not a wholly accurate way of assessing the age of young sheep and a lot of time and money has been wasted complying with this requirement.”

The UK farming unions have been calling for reform in this area for several years and proposed a cut-off date of 31st May to DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency.

“We are now in a position where industry can work with government to agree a cut-off date for sheep considered to be under 12 months of age. Anything born in the year previous and before this date should not need to be mouthed,” he said.

Mr Cleland says farmers are keen to work with government to implement this change and there is no reason why it shouldn’t come into effect quickly. “It is crucial that we identify areas where the UK sheep industry can be made more competitive. This is a step in the right direction. It will help to make the sector more efficient, reduce costs and add value to carcases.”

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson also welcomed the changes.

Mr Nicholson said: “This move, which will hopefully be implemented as soon as possible, should prove to be a more accurate and cost effective way of ‘ageing’ sheep. The current EU regulation states that if a sheep is over twelve months its spinal cord must be removed from the carcass, with the age of the sheep determined by the eruption of its incisors.

“However, a Food Safety Authority report in 2010 highlighted that the incisor can erupt anywhere between nine and fifteen months demonstrating that checking teeth is an inexact method of determining the age of a sheep, inevitably meaning there are those inaccurately ‘aged.’

“The process of firstly determining the age of a sheep by its teeth and then the splitting of the carcass (removing the spinal cord) is slow, inefficient and is ultimately costly, as splitting the carcass can reduce the value of the sheep by up to 40 per cent.”

Mr Nicholson added: “The vote last week will now provide a new degree of flexibility for the industry and I have to commend the work of the farming unions of the United Kingdom who have worked hard in their lobbying efforts to push this through.”