A new assessment of the chances of developing the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) from eating beef on the bone has concluded that the risks are "negligible".
It should be the perfect start to a good week for beef farmers. European agriculture ministers, meeting in Brussels today, are also expected to lift the ban on British beef exports, a move that will be gradually phased in over the coming year.
Nick Brown, the Secretary of State for Agriculture, said yesterday that he was "certain" the European Union would lift the British beef export ban.
He told GMTV: "Our partners in Europe have played fair with us and I am certain - as certain as I can be before the meeting - that we will get the decision we want."
Mr Brown has also made no secret of his desire to lift the highly unpopular beef on the bone ban which was imposed almost a year ago by his predecessor as Agriculture secretary, Jack Cunningham.
Mr Brown said yesterday: "I hope to be able to lift the domestic ban on beef-on-the-bone as soon as it is reasonable for me to do so." The minister will receive advice this week from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) which will significantly downgrade the already very low risks of eating beef on the bone.
Lifting the ban will give the British beef industry a much-needed boost. The ban led toprotests from farmers, restaurant owners and even bishops, who accused the Government of over-reacting, making criminals of ordinary people and behaving like a nanny state.
When Mr Cunningham announced the ban on T-bone steaks and beef ribs last December, he decided to take the most hardline option offered to him in the recommendations he received from Seac.
Keen to show his anti-BSE credentials, Mr Cunningham chose to ban all beef on the bone from animals older than six months. At that time, Seac estimated there was a 5 per cent risk of one case of human BSE arising as a result of exposure to boned beef during 1998. That risk has now dwindled to virtually zero.
Seac estimated that only three out of the 2.2 million cattle that were slaughtered this year for human food were at any risk of passing on BSE from bony nodules on the cattle backbones that may be still attached to beef sold on the bone. With the BSE epidemic virtually eradicated in younger animals, this risk has diminished still further.
t An array of former Tory agriculture and health ministers will be questioned in coming weeks as the BSE Inquiry moves into a new phase in its search for "who knew what, and when".
Among the 21 who be quizzed are John Gummer - who as agriculture minister in 1990 was pictured feeding his daughter Cordelia a beefburger to emphasise beef was safe.The inquiry panel is still considering whether to call former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major about measures taken to control the cattle epidemic and repeated reassurances before 1996 that beef was "safe to eat".