28 November 1997

Passing £40m meat inspection bill to farmers is not on

By Shelley Wright

FARMERS and the meat trade have warned government that its latest cost-cutting proposal – passing meat inspection charges of more than £40m back to the industry – is a step too far.

Junior farm minister Jeff Rooker announced late last week that government planned to charge the meat trade for the work done by the Meat Hygiene Service to ensure that specified risk material controls were being adhered to.

While the controls apply only to cattle at the moment, from Jan 1 they will be extended to sheep and goats. "It is only right that the meat industry pays for an inspection system that ensures the safety of, and increases consumer confidence in, their products," Mr Rooker said.

Farming leaders immediately complained that although the charges would fall on abattoirs, they would undoubtedly be passed back to farmers. NFU deputy president Ben Gill said that could wipe at least another £10 a head from cattle returns.

The NFU would decide early next week, following governments expected announcement of the 1997 farm income estimates on Mon, what action to take.

Sir David Naish, NFU president, said farmers were stunned by the proposal. The decision, on top of the axing of state rendering aid, and governments apparent determination to make cattle breeders pay for the establishment and running of the national database, would put unbearable pressure on farmers, he insisted.

The MHS charges were a step too far. BSE controls were a public health issue. As such, government should pay its share, as happened elsewhere in Europe. Sir David was due to meet farm minister Jack Cunningham yesterday (Thur).

Scottish NFU vice-president George Lyon described the move as another blow for the industry.

Bob Parry, president of the Farmers Union of Wales, called into question the governments commitment to agriculture as the industry lurched into an ever-deepening financial crisis.

Condemnation also came from the MLC, and from the Association of British Abattoir operators which said the move demonstrated the governments willingness to sacrifice the UK meat industry for short-term political expediency.