Small abattoirs fear closure because of plans to pass the full cost of meat inspection back to the livestock industry.
The industry already contributes £23.5m a year towards meat control costs. But Food Standards Agency proposals would more than double that figure to £50m – a cost meat processors warn will put them out of business.
“The current discount is effectively an industry subsidy from taxpayers,” said Michael Jackson, the agency’s head of food safety and enforcement, during a public meeting with industry representatives on Tuesday (17 May).
Some 30 farmers, butchers and abattoir owners attended the meeting at Colchester, Essex. Rather than a subsidy, meat control costs were an unfair tax on livestock production that threatened to become unaffordable, they told Mr Jackson.
Small and medium-sized meat processing plants believe they will be worst hit by the proposals. Closure would increase the distance livestock are transported to slaughter and make it harder for independent retailers to source local supplies.
Kevin Burrows, managing director of Suffolk abattoir J H Lambert, said: “Our business supports thousands of local farmers and these proposals have serious implications. They could close us.”
Mr Burrows said it was right that meat should be inspected. But it was wrong that a government body could charge whatever it liked for inspections and then pass the entire cost back to the industry without any choice.
The agency claims the proposals take into account the interests of abattoirs with low throughput by offering them a reduced discount. But those slaughterhouses still face an increase in meat control costs.
Livestock farmer Chris Parker told Mr Jackson: “If you impose a cost on an industry, you will make it uncompetitive and you will force it down. The inability to pay will force us all out of business.”
Ipswich butcher George Debman, of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, said the agency had failed to consider the knock-on effect on family-run retailers and the wider rural economy.
The proposals will now be discussed at an agency board meeting next Wednesday (25 May) before a decision is made. Mr Jackson said: “Government ministers across the UK will be fully engaged in relation to the decision that the board makes.”