The European Union hopes to ease the cost of protein used to make pig and poultry feed by lifting a ban on by-products imposed during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak over a decade ago.
The change would come at a time of heightened consumer concern about food safety in Europe after it was discovered that horsemeat had been sold as beef in some products.
Stricter safety rules on processed animal proteins (PAPs), that include intestine, bones, blood and feather, would be imposed when the ban was lifted to prevent, for example, the "cannibalism" of pig feed being given to pigs.
But the cost to industry of implementing the new rules as well as consumer wariness of the risk of another mad cow-type outbreak means it is not clear how much the protein would be used.
"We are currently discussing with member states the potential re-authorisation of processed animal proteins in feed for poultry and pigs from 2014," said a spokesman for Tonio Borg, the EU's Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner.
The use of PAPs, particularly when cows were fed with feed containing cow protein, was blamed for the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Europe.
A human version called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is believed to be caused by eating beef products contaminated with central nervous system tissue, such as brain and spinal cord, from cattle infected with BSE.
In the UK, the worst affected country, a total of 175 cases of vCJD were registered from 1996-2011.
The by-products from pig and poultry slaughter were banned in 2000 as a precaution after the BSE outbreak and the number of cases in the EU fell from 2,167 cases in 2001 to 45 cases in 2009 according to the World Health Organisation.
HIGH IMPORT PRICES
In Europe, PAPs can currently be used in pet food. As of June this year they will also be allowed in EU fish feed.
The next planned step would be to allow them in poultry and pig feed. This would bring Europe back in line with many other countries, including the United States, China, Thailand, Australia where there were no major reported outbreaks of BSE.
PAPs would stay banned in the EU's ruminant sector, which includes cattle and sheep and was most closely linked to BSE.
The EU hopes lifting the ban would ease a shortage of cheaper domestically-produced protein. In 2011, the EU used around 49.9 million tonnes of protein source in feed but only half of it came from Europe.
The rest was imported, with soymeal accounting for 80 percent of those imports, and soymeal prices doubled over a few months last year due to a drought in the United States.
Animal by-products are a good alternative and would reduce reliance on expensive imports, producers say.
"It is a very good source of protein in terms of nutritional composition and digestibility and thus feed efficiency," said Leo den Hartog, director of Research and Development and Quality Affairs at the Dutch animal nutrition company Nutreco.
HEALTHY ANIMALS ONLY
The re-authorisation would forbid cannibalism and will also ensure the by-products allowed in feed would be from healthy animals slaughtered for human consumption.
Animals who die on farms would be used for energy, for example in cement plants, or fertilisers but not in feed.
Scientists say the new controls would also include DNA testing to make sure that raw material i.e. protein from chicken and protein for pork do not mix.
This might require separate production lines, that could force industry change and push up the cost, said Alexander Doering, secretary general of the federation of the European Union's animal feed producers.
"The cost in that case will be prohibitive," he said.
Whether the feed sector will use PAPs once the ban is lifted will depend on price and availability and the extent of consumer concerns, an industry source who declined to be named said.
"All chicken protein currently produced is being used by pet food sector now. If the ban for compound feed is lifted, there will be even more demand and prices will go up. It will become too expensive," the source said.
"In addition there are some concerns on the consumer side, and some supermarkets could decide not to take those products."
Consumer interest in food safety issues has also been heightened by the recent horsemeat scandal and this could make them wary of buying food with a link to PAPs.
"If the Commission sticks to its position, the alternative is labelling and then the consumer will decide," French member of the European Parliament Isabelle Thomas said.
"We have labelling for GMOs. We could very well label products as containing or not containing processed animal proteins." (Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt in London, Gus Trompiz in Paris and Charlie Dunmore in Brussels; editing by Anna Willard)