The BSE crisis led to numerous laws about beef – including how old beef could be before being slaughtered. But many beef experts think it’s time for a change

When BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) was first confirmed in British cattle in 1986, no one could have imagined the fall out. By the mid-90s the crisis seemed unending – you couldn’t switch on the telly or flick open a newspaper without a mention of it and the burning pyres and shattered farmers it left in its wake. The beef industry, surely, would never recover.

Yet recover it did. At the height of the crisis, in 1992, over 37,000 clinical cases were reported. By 2004, that had dropped to just 90. There’s no denying that the success of such eradication was down to the meticulous measures imposed by the government to control the disease; steps which have led to British beef being safe and profitable once again.

British beef is back. There’s no doubting that. But could it be better? Some in the beef industry certainly think so.

One of the measures which was put in place after the epidemic was the Over Thirty Months Rule – that cattle could not be sold for food if they were aged over 30 months (studies showed that any cattle that do become infected with BSE are unlikely to contain significant ‘BSE infectivity’ before they are four years of age).

The ruling was finally lifted in November 2005, due to the fact that no cases of BSE were found in the UK in cattle younger than 30 months after 1996. OTM cattle couild officially be sold for food in the UK, as long as they tested negatively for BSE. And the testing rules were further relaxed. In 2009, the testing age was bought back to 48 months. And, again, in 2011, to 72 months.

 

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Can’t be too careful: food experts inspect potentially contaminated meat (REUTERS)

Eventually in March 2013, the government agreed that cattle aged over 72 months no longer had to be tested for BSE, thus marking the end of BSE testing on healthy cattle in the UK.

Many farmers and beef-lovers claim that OTM beef is delicious. One supporter is butcher Oliver Seabright of The Quality Chop House in Farringdon, London. He says he realized the potential in OTM beef when he ate the meat of a grass-fed ten year-old cow [a heifer that had given birth to calves] from Somerset. “It was flipping delicious,” he exults. “Great colour and flavour [sic] that just lasted forever in your mouth.”

Since then Seabright has stocked OTM Dexter, Belted Galloway, Devon Red, Highland… the list goes on and every single one he says, has had the “edge over the under thirty months stuff”.

Seabright explains that beef over fivr years old is more likely to be marbled and that this marbling tends to be evenly distributed throughout the meat. Rather than “the lighting strike line you get in beef that has been grain-fed”, OTM beef can be finished and marbled on grass alone so it contains all the omega 3 qualities of grass-fed beef with “tonnes of flavour.”

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“Age and diet are the most significant determining factors on beef flavour,” Seabright explains, “and OTM beef can be far superior in flavour to anything under age.”

But unfortunately, most farmers kill their herd long before the 30-month mark. This is because of another BSE-related measure, called Specified Risk Material Control (SRM) – the removal (after slaughter) of the vertebral column and other parts of the animal most likely to carry BSE in cattle over 30 months (believed to remove 99 per cent of the disease).

Removing the spine raises the slaughter fee however, often as much as by £35 a head, so when an OTM animal is sold at auction it fetches a fraction of a price than it would at under 30 months. So most farmers simply don’t bother.

 

 

A more delicious dinner: fans of OTM beef say it tastes better than younger meat

Jorge Thomas, the founder of Swaledale Foods in Yorkshire calls the ban “archaic”.

“Beef on the bone is an entirely different thing – much tastier, but also easier to handle,” Thomas says. “The bone offers protection, without it, the meat is fragile and exposed. Remove the spine and you render the meat inferior.”

As a fervent believer that OTM beef simply tastes better, Thomas pays his farmers the same for OTM beef as he does for beef less than 30 months. But it’s he who has to foot the SRM bill: not Defra or the government or the slaughterhouse.

Removing the SRM ban would have an obviously beneficial knock-on fiscal effects for the local farmer, supplier, butcher and consumer – and possibly the economy as a whole. When the FSA stopped the testing on OTM, annual savings for the British abattoir sector were estimated to be around £3.3 million. Additionally, the cost of supervision from FSA staff saved Defra and the government another £780,000 annually.

Thomas says even a 36/48 months lift on SRM would make a massive difference to the market because, at present, once an animal hits 30 months its market value instantly drops. As a result, there’s simply no incentive for farmers to breed cattle OTM. A fact, according to Thomas, that is drastically affecting Britain’s native cattle breeds.

“Native animals reared on grass take a little bit longer to grow. To finish your Dexters, Belted Galloways, British Blues in 30 months – to get it to the right size, fattened up, to get the meat marbled – it’s really rather difficult to do that on grass and in that time frame,” Thomas explains. “Longhorns you can get to a decent size in 30 months but increasing that to 36 months would make a big difference. The flexibility would encourage British farmers to keep more native breeds. At the minute, we’re denying those native breeds the potential they otherwise would have.”

Thomas says this is a problem reflected at both ends of the market; producers are hamstrung and, as a result, the consumer is denied as much choice as possible or, conversely, has to pay over the odds for homegrown British beef.

So what does the future hold for OTM beef?

“There was a time when everyone wanted lean, supermarket-style, big muscle, commercial beef,” Thomas says. “That’s never going to be OTM because it doesn’t need to be. But now people are becoming more aware of our native breeds and that’s a different ball game. OTM is having a negative impact on those breeds; the British breeds that we’re much more interested in selling [and consumers are much more interested in buying].”

As awareness grows, surely demand will too. Seabright is ready to meet that demand – telling me he’s considering turning his butchers into an OTM-only shop. Meanwhile, Thomas is in the midst of setting up an OTM campaign calling for a reevaluation of SRM limits.

“Native British breeds are better OTM,” Thomas says. “Lifting the SRM limits, to some degree, is the only way to move forward.”

If you’d like to join Jorge Thomas in his campaign for OTM beef you can email him at jorge@swaledalefoods.co.uk