LIVESTOCK producers were given hope, at the conference, that the ban on British beef exports could soon be over.

NBA chief executive, Robert Forster, said a return to exports would be a major boost to farmers.

He said the continued decline in BSE in Britain would soon mean the resumption of exports. It would allow Britain to trade on the same terms as all other EU countries which had BSE, including the Republic of Ireland, France and Germany.

The World Animal Health Organisation stipulation is that there should be fewer than 100 cases of BSE per million cattle over two years.

Britain is projected to achieve that level in early 2005 which, if officials in Brussels agree the figures are accurate, could see exports by June 2005.

In May this year, however, the organisation will examine a proposal that the threshold should be raised to 200 cases per million cattle. Mr Forster said other EU countries with BSE were worried they would hit the higher figure and so were mounting pressure for the change.

Last year (the most recent figure available) showed Britain's cases had dropped to 230 per million and were still falling. Mr Forster invited producers to keep an eye on the May meeting.

"If it agrees to raise the threshold to 200, we will have exports 12 months earlier," he said. Britain could possibly hit the 200 threshold towards the back end of next year.

The production of beef from grass-fed steers and heifers was unique to Britain. "In the EU, the main beef produced is from cereal beef and bull beef, much of which is from the dairy herd and cow beef," he said.

"You should be looking forward to selling this excellent product of yours which will be in demand. Grass-fed beef from the UK is favoured by people on the Continent, who have to eat cow beef or bull beef."

He also believed the reduction in BSE meant the over 30-month rule had to be reviewed and ended if Britain was to be allowed to trade on the same footing as the rest of Europe.

There was also a lot of pressure from the Treasury over the costs of the 30-month cull. Every animal cost £460 and the Treasury had already spent £2.8bn.

He said the Food Standards Agency was carrying out a review and would report in May, when its ideas would be put out to the industry for consultation.

Mr Forster also believed beef from older animals could start entering the market in January, but warned that it would have to be properly ordered to avoid the market being flooded.

All would have to be tested, as they were in Europe, and it would be vital that laboratories and abattoirs were able to cope.

The NBA wants a born-after date of January 1, 2000, for animals, whatever their age, to enter the food chain, but Mr Forster warned that, until a market was established, the older beef animals would carry a cost which prime cattle would not - including the test cost and possible discount price to establish a trade