Blog: Sheep splitting, science and the way forward

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Tom Fullick_170_227Tom Fullick is our livestock adviser.

He writes:

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It’s fair to say that very few food safety areas are more politically sensitive than Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs), both in the UK and Europe. But political thinking should not have undue influence on what is, fundamentally, an issue for sound science and evidence.

The requirement to remove the spinal cord in sheep older than 12 months was introduced at the same time as bovine Specified Risk Material (SRM) removal requirements, as a precaution amid fears that BSE was transmissible to sheep and that Scrapie posed a risk to human health.

It is this legislation that lays down the ‘where one or more permanent incisors has erupted through the gum’ rule for spinal cord removal. This was viewed at the time as a best case ruling, despite sheep realistically cutting teeth anywhere from nine to 18 months, most cut teeth at 12-16 months.

We’re now in a very different place to where we were in the late nineties, however, with progressive rollback of cattle SRM requirements not being reflected in the regulations for sheep.

Testing across millions of sheep has shown that BSE is simply not transmitted to sheep in field conditions, and that Scrapie poses no zoonotic potential, bar incidences where direct brain inoculation has been used in mice.

The latest European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion on Scrapie is due out this month, following on from some French research. The NFU’s position is that TSE regulations in sheep must be rolled back in the same way as for cattle, and that when the UK applies for BSE negligible status, sheep SRM requirements should be removed too.

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BSE is simply not transmitted to sheep in field conditions and Scrapie poses no zoonotic potential

So, what has the NFU done?

Beyond working with FSA officials (who will be joining myself and NFU livestock board chairman Charles Sercombe on farm/ at market in the near future) and continually raising the issue with Defra, the NFU and NSA coordinated a cross industry meeting in February this year where it was agreed that a cut-off date of June 30 the year following lambing would be a more effective way of enforcing the current regulation – and we want to see it in place for June 2016.

Most recently, the NFU has sent a letter to Defra minister George Eustice on the subject, and the livestock team are awaiting EFSA’s report in July in order to further strengthen the case for government. If successful, the UK would be the first country in Europe to make this change, so it has to be robust.

This proposal, with unanimous cross-industry and cross-UK support, is what we believe to be the logical next step, rationalising a system that relies on a factor (tooth eruption) that is inherently unreliable.

Longer term, rollback of SRM removal in sheep has to be the goal, but in the short term the way that the current legislation is interpreted should be changed to give industry certainty.