British cow beef could be back on menus by November, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC).
Following a recommendation from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in August, the Government will allow Over Thirty Month (OTM) beef back into the food chain. It was withdrawn in August 1996 following the BSE health scare.
An MLC spokesman said: "It should enable food service operators to substitute some imported product with home-produced supply."
In addition to enabling operators to support British farmers, the beef is expected to be cheaper than the current imported alternatives.
But although the MLC forecasts downward pressure on prices, it said any fall was "unlikely to be significant".
MLC marketing director Richard Lowe said: "We can't say how much cheaper it will be, but we expect it to settle somewhere between the current compensation price for farmers [88p/kg carcass weight] and the EU average [130p-140p/kg carcass weight]."
Lowe said he expected OTM beef to be snapped up by pub chains and contract caterers. Local Authority Caterers Association chairman Kevin McKay gave the news a cautious welcome. "It's good news that a British product is available at a cheaper price," he said, "but we will have to wait for the Government's new nutritional guidelines to determine how much we can use."
Jason Danciger, catering director at pub group Laurel, believes there will be indirect benefits. "OTM beef is generally used by cheaper operations such as schools and hospitals," he said. "However, premium cuts of meat will become cheaper as the supply increases."
Fast-food burger outlets are also expected to welcome its return. McDonald's head of food development, Keith Kenny, said: "We are keen to use British cow beef but, as a brand-sensitive company, we would need clear guidelines from the FSA to ensure complete consumer confidence."
By Tom Bill