11 February 2000

Small abattoir fate is still hanging in the balance

By Isabel Davies

THE future of small abattoirs is still in jeopardy despite the governments acceptance of most of the recommendations put forward by the red meat red tape working group (News, Feb 4).

Groups representing the small abattoir sector are bitterly disappointed by farm minister Nick Browns failure to freeze crippling veterinary supervision charges as a temporary measure.

The proposal was one of six that the minister rejected out of a total of 107 recommendations put forward by the group to help ease costs incurred by unnecessary bureaucracy.

Mr Brown said freezing charges would break EU law and the UK could face legal proceedings if it failed to comply. The government will push on to comply with EU requirements to increase veterinary cover from 25% to 100% in every meat plant.

Robert Kennard, abattoir campaign co-ordinator for the Soil Association and a member of the working group, said the lack of immediate assistance to low volume plants would lead to closures.

A straw poll of 30 abattoirs carried out by the Small Abattoir Federation after Mr Browns announcement last week found that 26 thought they would still be forced to close. Three of the abattoirs said they could close within a week.

"At the moment there is just a medium and long term strategy. There is no immediate assistance," said Mr Kennard.

Although Mr Brown announced an industry task force would be set up to investigate "capping" charges and other ways to reduce costs, Mr Kennard believed it would take at least three months to report back.

Freezing charges would only give temporary relief but it was still an essential move. "It would give people the confidence to keep going," he said.

Alan Kirkwood, president of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, argued 100% veterinary cover was wholly disproportionate to the risk involved.

"This is one issue where the UK government should be willing to return to Brussels and take a firm stance. There are no health risks attached to our long-standing veterinary procedures and no reason why we should change, except EU dogma," he said.

According to the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, the closure of small abattoirs would prevent farmers from getting into niche markets.

It would also put the future of rare breeds at risk according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Large abattoirs did not have the systems in place to cope with small batches of rare breeds from individuals, it said.