BRUSSELS - The European Union (EU) agreed overnight (NZ time) to allow T-bone steaks back into Europe's restaurants, lifting a four-year ban imposed over mad cow disease fears.
Sales of beef containing the backbone of animals aged over 12 months were banned in 2001 in many European countries to reduce the risk of catching the human equivalent of BSE, mad cow disease. This low age limit effectively outlawed T-bone steaks.
EU veterinary experts meeting in Brussels have now raised that limit to 24 months.
"This first step towards easing EU BSE measures is a positive reflection of how far we have come in the battle against the disease. It is not a move that was taken lightly," EU Food Safety Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said.
The Commission's proposal will now be examined by the European Parliament. If the assembly confirms the proposal within some two months, T-bone steaks could reappear in EU restaurants by the end of the year.
"I think we are going to rediscover the taste of meat," said George Papanicolau, who runs a Greek restaurant in Brussels.
The EU's ban on T-bones exempted countries such as Sweden, Finland and Austria where there were no cases of BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- the brain-wasting disease that is believed to cause a similar deadly condition in humans.
The cow's vertebral column was thought to be particularly dangerous because concentrations of BSE-causing agents have normally been found in nervous tissue rather than muscle.
The EU is also planning to allow the resumption of British beef exports, banned in 1996 after mad cow disease broke out.
Serious meat lovers have long complained about the EU's 12-month age limit on beef on the bone, saying the size and quality of steaks cut from such young animals was not the same.
The decision delighted lovers of Italy's phonebook-thick Tuscan Fiorentina steak, traditionally cut from cattle aged between 17 and 22 months and including a big piece of backbone.
"For four and a half years, the Fiorentina has been notably absent from our tables. But we can truly say that it was never forgotten, not even for a day," Susanna Cenni, a councillor in the Tuscany regional government told Italian news agency ANSA.
"This is a day of celebration for Tuscany. Finally one of the flagships of our gastronomy, of our tradition and of animal husbandry, the famous Fiorentina, has made a comeback."