The UK’s network of small abattoirs is near collapse. The figures are shocking: in 1971 there were almost 1,900 red meat abattoirs, today there are just 249. This dramatic loss has gone largely unnoticed by the wider public, yet it has major economic, sustainability and welfare implications. Without urgent action, access to locally-produced, traceable meat will no longer be possible in many parts of the country.

The Sustainable Food Trust’s new report, A Good Life and A Good Death: Relocalising Farm Animal Slaughter, reveals the extent of decline in the number of small abattoirs. At a time when demand for local food is on the rise, and issues of welfare and sustainability are at the forefront of many consumers’ minds, the loss of more than a third of small abattoirs over the last decade alone is jeopardising the future of sustainable, local food systems.

As small abattoirs continue to close, we are really falling at the last hurdle. Many farmers throughout the UK work hard to produce quality meat from grass-fed, organic or other high welfare systems where many of the animals never leave the farm until the day they are sent to slaughter. These farmers are being let down by a system which is forcing an increasing number of them to travel long distances to an abattoir, sell their meat to a supermarket or go out of business.

One farmer in Scotland told how she effectively has only the option of selling to Morrisons, using their abattoir 32 miles away. In order to sell direct to consumers, she would have to send the animals 150 miles to be slaughtered and then pay for the meat to be returned, which is completely uneconomical.

Welfare should be of utmost importance at this crucial stage – when an animal’s life is about to end. Yet, animals that may never have left their farm are travelling up to 65 miles or more to be slaughtered. As journeys to slaughter get longer, such animals experience the stress of separation from the other animals and the farm, the discomfort of travelling long distances and often an extensive wait at the abattoir – itself an unknown and stressful environment.

The slaughter of livestock is a difficult, even emotional, event for farmers, even without the time and expense of travelling long distances. And without the availability of a trusted local abattoir embedded in the rural community, the farmer may feel a loss of control over the process, and anxiety about how the animals will be treated.

Those working at large abattoirs may themselves feel dissatisfied and disconnected from the wider context of the food system. Not being part of a community with any real connection to either the farm from which the animals have come or the consumers who will then buy the meat, the workers may lack a sense of purpose. Traditional butchers’ shops with abattoirs attached are few and far between these days, yet they often provide a trusted service, can tell consumers exactly where their meat is from, and have a deep knowledge of the various cuts of meat, providing a more diverse range of choices.

The disappearance of these small abattoirs also tells a bigger story about the decline of small farms, local food systems and traditional agriculture. In 1990 there were 15,000 butchers in the UK, by 2015 there were just 6,000. With the loss of small local abattoirs, we are losing control of our food system. The traceability of the food we buy becomes more complicated and alien. The trust we place in producers and retailers is undermined by the reality of the process. Those trying to do the right thing are facing enormous challenges.

We are also losing diversity, in terms of the availability of real, quality food sources, and in terms of the type of meat we buy. Large abattoirs and cutting plants tend not to cater for rarer breeds or niche cuts of meat. It is not always possible to get the offal back from large abattoirs, for example. Our food is losing its uniqueness as it increasingly conforms to the requirements of supermarkets.

What can be done to turn the tide on this? We must call on the Government to take urgent action, to recognise the importance of small abattoirs and to establish an independently chaired task force that will undertake an in-depth review of the UK’s small abattoir sector. The Sustainable Food Trust report makes specific recommendations for such a task force. If we act now we may be able to prevent the collapse of the UK’s small abattoir network and ensure the future of local, sustainable food systems.

Photograph: Patrick Lauke

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