16 March 2001

Plight of small abattoirs puts them in the limelight

By James Garner

FOR many small and medium-sized abattoirs it is ironic that their plight has suddenly become a nationally important story.

Until now, Caroline Cranbrook, a long-term campaigner and farmer from Great Glemham Farms in Suffolk, could interest neither the national Press nor government in the financial troubles of small abattoirs and the impact their closure would have on locally produced foods.

Now she fears that just as the Meat Hygiene Service charges are about to be reformed on Apr 1, the foot-and-mouth crisis might wipe out more abattoirs and livestock farmers too.

"The government must think about maintaining local food products and abattoirs, a lot may be threatened by the crisis. In some way they need to be kept in business."

The foot-and-mouth outbreak seems to have stirred government. Environment minister, Michael Meacher, spoke publicly on the BBCs World at One, and expressed hopes that the government would establish new abattoirs.

"Of course we would like to see more abattoirs. It increases animal stress if they are transported further. Local abattoirs play a key part in the local and rural economy and of course we would like to see them increase, not just prevent further closures."

Martin Grantley-Smith, head of government relations at the Meat and Livestock Commission, says many of the arguments are simplistic. "There have always been major livestock movements because of seasonality," he says. "The abattoir network has been moulded over time, it is not just happened. The national Press seems to think the whole structure can just change, but in reality the food chain is working on such small margins.

"Attempts to drive out costs in the supply chain has meant maximising efficiency of abattoirs. Consequently we have a few large abattoirs serving supermarkets and we have lost much of the local network."

The role of the supermarkets, and particularly their desire for large dedicated abattoirs and central distribution points, is highlighted by Mark Griffiths of rural business consultants Dreweatt Neate in a report on the decline of abattoirs in the south east of England.

"The south east is probably a microcosm of the whole country. There has been a steep decline in abattoir numbers with increasing regulation and charges, but also partly through the strength of supermarkets," says Mr Griffiths. "Last year Horsham Bacon Factory shut. This means fat pigs from Kent, Sussex and Surrey have to be sent to an abattoir in Essex to be slaughtered, before being returned to Horsham to be processed, because there is no slaughter facility there anymore."

Farmers need to seek other markets and add value, he says. This might be through collaborating together or selling direct to the catering sector, or nearby hotels.

"A local food economy is desirable in animal welfare and environmental terms, but is also a very effective way to add value. The question is, is the local food chain geared up for all this?"

The cut in MHS charges may at best maintain the local network of abattoirs as it is, but this network is insufficient to help farmers and small processors take advantage of local food marketing, he says.