22 January 1999

£21m bill for stock men as funds axed

By Isabel Davies

LIVESTOCK farmers are expected to be hit with extra costs of more than £21m after the governments decision to axe its funding of specified risk material controls in abattoirs from Mar 30.

Farm minister, Nick Brown, said the government was no longer prepared for taxpayers to shoulder the financial burden of the controls. A proposal has been put forward to recover the costs, which are estimated at £21.5m for the coming year.

Last year, the government deferred its plan to pass the charges back to industry from Apr 1 because it accepted that the cost would have been a heavy additional burden which the sector would have found difficult to absorb.

Farming leaders reacted with dismay at Mr Browns decision. They fear that most of the costs will be passed back to producers and be reflected in even lower prices being paid to farmers.

Jim Walker, vice-president of the Scottish NFU, said it could be "the last straw for the sheep and cattle sectors, which are already reeling under the pressure of huge regulatory costs which our competitors elsewhere in Europe do not have to face."

The industry already bears the £35m a year costs of Meat Hygiene Service meat inspections.

The NFU claimed there was a strong argument for government to continue to fund the controls on the basis that SRM removal was a public health issue and, as such, should be continued to be paid for by the public purse.

But Peter Scott, secretary of the Federation of Meat Wholesalers, said that although the industry was in no better state to bear the costs, there was little chance of the unions getting the minister to change his mind.

And while abattoirs would absorb costs where they could, regrettably the rest would get passed on to producers, he said.

And farmers would not be the only casualties, said Mr Scott. Smaller abattoirs with low throughputs would be particularly hard hit. They could not afford to pass on all the costs, but would be forced to pay the "savage" charges.