Processors are optimistic that meat supplies can be maintained in the busy run-up to Christmas, despite possible industrial action by Meat Hygiene Service inspectors.
UNISON is balloting its members about whether to go ahead with three days of industrial action, after unhappiness about pay and conditions. The ballot closes tomorrow (21 November) and if members vote in favour, a strike could take place in the first or second week of December, MHS chief executive Steve McGrath said.
The MHS employs about 1300 staff across 400 abattoirs in Great Britain, and while Mr McGrath was uncertain how many would take part in action – if it went ahead – he said the meat supply system was flexible enough to maintain supplies whatever happened.
“We’ve been working with the meat industry to find ways around any possible action and I don’t believe production will be affected. A third of our staff are contracted and they’re not affected by industrial action anyway. It is a busy time of year, but the meat industry is flexible and can raise production in the run-up to, and after, any action.”
Richard Phelps of south-west firm Blade Farming agreed, but said some Older Cattle Disposal Scheme (OCDS) abattoirs, already running close to capacity, could be affected. “That won’t affect meat sales, though, as they are animals that don’t go into the food chain.”
Alongside OCDS abattoirs, Market Drayton auctioneer Bernie Hutchinson, said small to medium-sized abattoirs could also struggle to cope with any disruption. “Some bigger abattoirs are probably not running at full capacity and can absorb it. But my concern is that a lot of smaller plants are already close to capacity.”
One “saving grace” was that numbers of finished cattle and lambs were generally down this season. So most abattoirs should be able to find some extra capacity and push throughputs before or after any possible action, Thrapston auctioneer, Brian Pile added.
“It really depends how widespread action is, how long it lasts and when it happens. If it comes in the first week of December it would be more critical than the second, as a lot of cattle will be killed and hung for Christmas week then.”