Beef farmers in the Westcountry believe their industry is being threatened by overzealous regulation.
They say the Government is considering reneging on a new arrangement for the finishing of cattle from TB-restricted farms, in a move that could hold back the development of the beef sector at a time when it needs support – and could cost farmers a fortune.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is reviewing arrangements allowing cattle in special approved finishing units (AFUs) to be grazed for part of the time, a system that allows many more cattle through the system.
"We believe the Government is overstepping the mark," said Bill Harper, who chairs the National Beef Association's TB committee. He is urging members to petition Defra.
With up to a fifth of beef farms in the region under movement restriction because of bovine TB, the AFU system was introduced to help farmers finish their beef cattle for slaughter.
The AFUs replaced farm quarantine units, which did not meet EU approval, the main difference being that AFUs allowed the option of a period of outdoor grazing, facilitating a far larger throughput of animals.
But only a few months after the introduction of the AFUs, Defra is proposing to withdraw the grazing option. This course of action would cost the South West cattle industry hundreds of thousands of pounds, said Mr Harper, who farms on the Cornwall-Devon border near Holsworthy. Of the 109 AFUs in England, 73 are situated in the South West, with 43 of these registered as grazing AFUs.
Mr Harper added: "These licensed units provide an outlet for the finishing of clear-tested cattle from TB- restricted holdings.
Stock held in grazing AFUs are tested for TB every 90 days. It is uneconomic to rear traditionally-bred stock indoors for 20 to 30 months. Friesian bull beef suits this type of intensive system, but that is not the quality of beef a majority of processors and consumers demand.
"All other beef cattle, whether they are under TB restriction or not, need to be grazed. We understand we must comply with EU regulations, but this Government is overstepping the mark in this instance, because the EU is quite relaxed in its stance over grazing AFUs. So this proposal is not an EU derogation."
Mr Harper urged affected producers to contact John Cross, chairman of Defra's TB Eradication Advisory Group.
He said: "It must be done now. We all know how valuable these grazing units are in terms of providing the industry with the beef it requires in as natural a system as possible."
A single senior ministry vet is thought to be behind the new Defra action, claiming there is a disease risk in allowing the cattle to graze outside.
But the National Beef Association says the importance of allowing AFUs cannot be over-emphasised.
Bovine TB has been causing havoc among cattle herds throughout the country, responsible for the death of 26,000 cattle a year which either contract the disease or fail tests. Compensation to farmers over the years is nearing £1 billion, but the effect on farming communities is devastating – and has even led to suicides.
A Defra spokesman said: "We are reviewing the operating rules of all AFUs, including those with grazing land, as part of our ongoing work to improve TB controls and prevent the spread of this disease. No decisions have yet been taken."