22 December 2000

Report supports smaller abattoirs

By Norman Bagley

IT was a privilege to be asked to sit on the Maclean task-force set up to examine meat inspection charges.

I was asked on to the committee as chairman of the Livestock Marketing Alliance, which represents a wide variety of organisations that want to help the industry.

These include the farming unions of Wales and Scotland, the national pig, beef and sheep associations, the Tenant Farmers Association and livestock auctioneers throughout England, Wales and Scotland.

It was sad that the NFU chose not to contribute to such a targeted organisation, which exists simply to defend "competitive pricing".

One such barrier was punitive meat inspection charges. This threatened the existence of medium and small-sized abattoirs, which had apparently been forgotten by the NFU and Meat and Livestock Commission.

The acceptance and, more importantly, full funding of the Maclean report by government will have effects beyond its conclusions.

The estimated cost of 100% vet cover at abattoirs next April would have closed most of them in the medium and small sector. Are we to believe that the MLC and NFU did not understand the consequences?

Both organisations have spent 10 years telling farmers to make contracts with big supermarkets through a few chosen large abattoirs.

Medium-sized abattoirs and auctions alike have been treated with disdain. Indeed, the MLCs plan to rationalise the abattoir sector focused almost entirely on removing medium and small-sized plants.

It would appear that it did not understand the vital role that these abattoirs play in such a diverse meat market. Even worse, it seemed unaware that over-capacity is concentrated in the largest plants.

But what in the report made these organisations change tack and suddenly become supporters of medium and small sector? Simply that medium and small abattoirs account for about 50% of the total red meat kill in the UK.

But Assured British Meats abattoir protocol, upon which the use of "the little red tractor" logo depends, is ridiculously weighted against medium and small plants, and a universal assurance scheme in England seems further away than ever. Where was the NFU when this standard was agreed, we ask?

Scotland by contrast has a much more practical and credible assurance scheme – Quality Meat Scotland – already in place, that encompasses all operations whatever their size.

We hear so much about equal standards and "gold plating" in relation to the EU. Then the NFU gold plates our own standards to the detriment of a significant proportion of the abattoir sector.

So what does the Maclean report tell us? It tells us we have been told a great deal of rubbish over the years. Pig farmers tried working with the biggest processor and got little or no loyalty for their troubles.

Recently, despite having jumped through all assurance and co-operative marketing hoops, beef farmers have seen dw prices based on the cheapest possible imported alternative.

Of course, supermarkets remain important customers, but they are by no means the only ones. Perhaps auction markets are in a better position to benefit from the impetus the Maclean report gives to the highly competitive medium and small-sized abattoirs. &#42

The MLCs plan to rationalise the abattoir sector focused almost entirely on removing medium and small-sized plants, says Norman Bagley.

MACLEAN REPORT

&#8226 Far-reaching.

&#8226 Supports small and medium-sized plants.

&#8226 ABMs scheme unfair?