A RESUMPTION of British beef exports could be on the horizon. - and the Meat and Livestock Commission says there could be a level playing field in European beef trading for the first time in seven years.

Duncan Sinclair, MLC beef economist, said that the hoped-for export fillip after last autumn's change to the Date-Based Export Scheme rules had failed to materialise.

Export licences were still confined to just two abattoirs and only minimal volumes of beef were being exported. The extra costs had made anything more than token exports uneconomic.

But, said Mr Sinclair, improved prospects for the resumption of British bone-in exports, irrespective of age, on the same basis as the rest of the EU, arose primarily from the change in the threshold for BSE incidence categorisation being considered by the international regulatory authority, the Office Internationale des Epizooties .

From this summer its official "moderate incidence" threshhold of 100 cases per million animals over 24 months, set before the introduction of BSE testing, is likely to be changed to about 200 cases/million, subject to full testing.

If the rolling average UK incidence of about 240 cases falls below 200 by the end of the year, as hoped, an OIE decision to change the threshhold at its annual meeting in May would allow the UK to move from high to moderate status in 2004.

This would put English exporters into exactly the same category as most of the rest of Europe.

A real resumption in beef exports in 2004 would be important in mitigating the effects of any changes in the over 30- month rule on prime cattle values, sdaid Mr Sinclair.

If the OTM exit strategy proceeded as expected, UK beef production could increase by about 30pc in 2004, putting pressure on the supply/demand balance. Such a rise in domestic manufacturing-grade beef production would be valuable in replacing imports but, if it is not also to undermine the value of higher quality beef, a growing export trade is likely to be essential.