Backlog in BSE cull reaches crisis point

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The Government confirmed yesterday that the backlog of cattle waiting to be culled in the programme to eradicate BSE from the British herd is twice as large as previously estimated. The Public Services minister, Roger Freeman, said the size of the backlog, 400,000, was now regarded as a "fresh emergency".

Since the parliamentary announcement in March of the potential biochemical link between BSE and the human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the Government has introduced measures to try and remove BSE from the foodchain. This included a cull of all cattle over 30 months old. The slaughter programme has created a bottle neck in processing culled cattle waiting to go through rendering plants.

Mr Freeman said that 600,000 cattle had been culled since May. The large numbers have meant many carcasses being frozen and stored while waiting to be rendered.

As the British herd continues to reach the 30-month cut-off period, the backlog is increasing. Earlier this week Mr Freeman announced plans to increase the cold store capacity by bringing in up to 1,000 specialist lorry containers and the use of refrigerated ships.

Yesterday Mr Freeman admitted that the backlog was at crisis point in some regions. The worst affected areas are the South West and the West Midlands. "We can't have animal welfare problems and we can't have farmers going out of business because they cannot afford to keep their cattle over the winter. So we need to double the slaughter rate," he told the Today programme on BBC Radio.

About 33,000 cattle are being culled each week. Despite the backlog, the inability of the rendering plants to cope, and the shortage of cold store space, Mr Freeman said the cull rate was being increased to 55,000 per week. He added: "Some priority will have to be given not only to particular cases where there are animal welfare problems, but where farmers have been waiting some considerable time."

A further selective cull was agreed by the Government at the European Union summit in Florence in June. This was designed to slaughter beasts from herds considered more at risk from BSE. There are now question marks over whether this additional cull will go ahead. A vote is expected in the Commons when parliament resumes later this month.

It is understood that the Government has undertaken trials on the mix of cattle parts which are frozen and those which go direct to renderers. By changing the anatomical mix the kill rate can supposedly be accelerated to allow a drier mix to go for rendering. Until now whole carcasses have been frozen.