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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 00:06 GMT
Decline of the abattoir
Abattoir
Abattoirs say their business is under threat
The seven-day restriction on animal movements imposed following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is the latest blow to the UK's slaughterhouse industry.

Many smaller and medium-sized abattoirs have closed in recent years, with only larger establishments able to cope with the financial demands caused by tighter hygiene controls.

Some argue that the trend towards smaller numbers of large abattoirs has made it much more difficult to tackle the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Richard Young, an organic farmer of 27 years and a policy advisor for the Soil Association, said it made it harder to trace the source of the disease.

"The abattoir in Essex where the disease was first discovered buys pigs from virtually all over the country," he said.


The EU requirement that veterinary surgeons must also be present ... has caused the biggest single problem for small and medium-sized plants in the UK

Richard Young
Soil Association
"Because of that, when the Ministry of Agriculture was looking for the source of infection it was not just a ten-mile radius around the abattoir, it was the whole of the country."

UK abattoirs have come under increased regulation since Britain joined the Common Market in 1973.

An EU directive introduced in 1991 imposed "prohibitively expensive" structural and procedural changes and called for greater levels of inspection.

Many smaller and medium-sized businesses were unable to meet the costs involved, and closed.

Mr Young said the introduction in 1995 of the Meat Hygiene Service, which replaced the previous system of local authority meat inspection, resulted in even higher costs for many businesses.

One medium-sized Durham abattoir saw its inspection costs rise from 44,000 in 1995 to 110,000 in 1999.

"For smaller abattoirs the rise has been nearer 500 percent," said Mr Young.

In total, the number of red meat abattoirs in Britain has fallen from about 1350 in the late 1970s to 339 today, a fall of more than 70 percent.

Because fewer, larger abattoirs are taking the majority of the business, many animals are having to be transported over greater distances for slaughter.


After five years at college most vets see their vocation as helping live animals, not inspecting dead ones

Richard Young
Soil Association
Mr Young said that some suggested longer travelling times could increase the contamination of live animals "1000-fold".

The National Farmers' Union has acknowledged that "large parts of south-east England are now devoid of abattoirs".

Hampshire and Surrey have just one each, and there are none on the Isle of Wight, although about 3,500 beef cattle, 20,000 lambs and 4,500 pigs are reared there.

Mr Young said that some small-scale pig farmers in Berkshire are travelling to Bromsgrove in the West Midlands "in a desperate attempt to find an abattoir still able and willing to kill their pigs".

He said that having full-time meat inspectors in abattoirs was a "reasonable response" to increased food safety concerns.

But he added: "The EU requirement that veterinary surgeons must also be present ... has caused the biggest single problem for small and medium-sized plants in the UK.

"After five years at college most vets see their vocation as helping live animals, not inspecting dead ones. As a result there is a critical shortage of British vets available."

Larger abattoirs are usually assigned a MHS vet costing around 30 per hour on average, but smaller businesses get agency vets whose fees can commonly be more than 60 per hour, and in one case 107.

From April this year, abattoirs will have more costs to deal with, as levels of veterinary inspection will rise again, from 50 percent to 100 percent of slaughtering time.



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