Meat is a hot and divisive topic right now. It’s centre table in food debates from public health to global resources. What’s largely left in the dark however, is where our meat comes from – the slaughterhouse. Even when referred to in more glamorous terms as the ‘abattoir’ these places where living creatures go to become meat rarely find themselves fit for dinner party conversation. But where, and how, our animals are slaughtered is a crucial issue to discuss in the meat debate.

For the best part of a century, the number of UK slaughterhouses has been in decline. In the early 1950s there were over 5,000, “the largest of which,” in the estimations of retired butcher Trevor Herbert, “could kill 40 animals in a decent day’s slaughtering.” In 1985, 1,000 operational abattoirs were registered in the UK, by 2007 this had decreased to 285.

Abattoirs and slaughterhouses differ greatly in the scale of their operations. Put simply, scale is graded by the number of animals processed using the EU definition of livestock units. In its basic form one EU Livestock Unit (ELU) equals: 1 cattle beast, 2 calves, 5 pigs or 10 sheep. That would mean that the ‘large’ slaughterhouse mentioned by Herbert could have a throughput of 10,400 ELU, should they have a year of decent slaughtering, 5 days of the week, taking cattle stock. This figure is based on 1 cow equalling 1 ELU; if they were slaughtering a mix of animals the ELU would be smaller.

Prior to the Second World War, this would typically have been much less, with just one slaughter day per week. According to former butcher Fred Mallion, the week would work around this. “Monday was slaughter day, on Tuesday and Wednesday customers would buy stewing and cheaper cuts – offal and sausage. Thursday, Friday and Saturday would see roasting cuts on display. That was the pattern no matter where you went.” It helped to ensure a fresh supply of meat throughout the week.

In the UK today, however, a ‘very large’ red meat abattoir would have a throughput of over 100,000 ELU a year with many parts of the animal never seeing a butcher’s shop. A ‘large’ abattoir is classified as 30,000 – 100,000 ELU and medium 5,000 – 30,000. Anything less that 5,000 ELU a year is seen as ‘small’ with ‘very small’ offering less than 1,000.

In 2007 there were 11 ‘very large’ red meat abattoirs in the UK and 145 ‘small’ or ‘very small’. The 11 ‘very large’ made up 27.1% of the throughput share, while combined ‘small’ and very small abattoirs contributed just 2.8%.

These small premises might seem inefficient by contrast to the large, factory-type establishments supplying our supermarkets and large caterers. However, smaller retailers also play a vital, albeit different, role in serving communities by accepting a variety of meats. While large slaughterhouses are essential to large-scale meat production, they tend to specialise in only a few species; most cannot slaughter for producer-retailers or independent butchers because of their pricing structures and specialisations.

It is the smaller premises that allow small-scale farmers to stay in business and sell their meat locally through high street butchers, farmers’ markets and farm shops. Their demise is a threat to small-scale farming.

Well supported by an affluent village on the outskirts of Bristol, W J Pearce & Sons is a third generation butchers with a slaughterhouse attached. “Animals come in one end and go all the way through our shop,” says longstanding slaughterman Cliff. The meat comes from local farms keeping food miles and animal stress to a minimum. While proud of their transparency, they know where to exercise discretion, recognising the problems of having an abattoir on the High Street. While people appreciate having a local butcher, the slaughter of animals is always a sensitive issue, as such they opt not to slaughter pigs because of the squeal. But Cliff comments that “the village supports us and we support them.”

Rare breeds have made something of a comeback in recent years, with a number saved from the brink of extinction. There is equally growing demand for ‘alternative’ cuts of meat for which Cliff credits TV chefs. “The thing is,” he says, “TV chefs say ‘try this’ and people do it. We’ll happily supply them the cut; ox liver and cheek are having a heyday.” Pearce are delighted to help raise public appreciation of the whole animal.

“The supermarkets are very powerful… even if they are exhausted fighting each other.” While the current media fever for food is good for business, larger economic and political factors leave Cliff worried that personal choice is soon to be a thing of the past. “Food production in this country is in a serious state, pig farmers are getting out, veg growers and dairy farmers are getting little for it, it’s down to imports, and well, there’s a glut of food in the country. It’s not only the abattoirs that have been closed and not replaced, it’s the livestock markets too.” He fears that British heritage breeds and varieties will not be available in the future.

According to Cliff, a lot of the small-scale abattoir closures have been brought about through legislation, “you used to just be left to do the job and it would be fit for consumption,” but now “the slaughterhouses, they keep working hard, but often there’s no one coming on behind them and with new legislation and its major expenditures to be seeing to, it’s difficult to be looking at the future. Every year it gets harder.” With sons and daughters leaving the family business and rising costs, running a small-scale slaughterhouse is a challenge.

Since 2000 the Food Standards Agency has been responsible for meat inspection duties. It’s their role to ensure that the meat industry safeguards the health of the public, and the health and welfare of animals at slaughter. The FSA delivers ‘official controls’ which require specified inspections of all animals, carcasses and offal using risk-based audits to verify that fresh meat premises comply with EU Food Hygiene Regulations.

In 1998, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food claimed that legal proceedings had been instigated by the European Commission against the British Government “for failing to ensure that the level of official veterinary supervision in licensed GB slaughterhouses complies with the requirements of [the relevant EU Directives].”

Levels of veterinary supervision in slaughterhouses began to increase almost immediately with stipulations that both an Official Veterinary Surgeon and a Meat Hygiene Inspector must be present at slaughtering. Unlike other parts of the EU, the UK requires that the ‘Official Veterinary Surgeon’ currently has full veterinary surgeon qualifications, increasing the level of expertise needed, and in turn, the fee. Most of the EU states use a different type of person – a ‘Public Health Vet’ – who has less wide-ranging qualifications.

Until this point, inspection work was carried out by qualified MHS Meat Inspectors, with only one required per slaughterhouse. Because the hourly rates for veterinarians are many times higher than for ordinary Meat Inspectors, all abattoirs had increased costs, with small abattoirs squeezed especially hard because these high costs are spread across relatively few animals.

The industry has equally imposed other hurdles in recent decades including a host of BSE regulations, the loss of cost-effective outlets for most offal and increased paperwork. Despite the fact that smaller abattoirs are given some leeway on regulations, they will not be on an even economic playing field with larger abattoirs, until the model shifts towards a charge based on the number of animals being slaughtered.

Doug Griffiths, now in his 70s, runs a combined slaughterhouse and butchers in rural Shropshire. Like Cliff, he’s acutely aware that he’s one of the few that’s managed to survive. Worn by the experience, he tells me he’s been running the business for “too long” and hopes that his nephew will take over from him. The 1998 addition of a second meat inspector gets him riled; it’s “a waste of resources, why can’t they combine the two?” he says. There was equal scepticism about the hygiene repercussions of small abattoir closures. For example, a Soil Association report by Bob Kennard and Richard Young in 1999 stressed that if increased journey and holding times at larger slaughterhouses meant that just a couple more animals arrive in a soiled condition, contamination could increase 1,000 fold.

Suffice to say the crucial role of small abattoirs in food production fills business needs that large slaughterhouses cannot. Their unique infrastructure provides opportunities for the independent meat sector and opportunities for innovation.

If the ability to market rare breeds and handle small orders of organic or local meat in a fashion that is integrated and traceable is denied through the closure of small abattoirs, we’ll lose genetic diversity and, ultimately, future breeding stock. We’ll also lose the craft of pre-slaughter handling of animals and all that this is said to contribute to the taste. And most importantly, we’ll lose the least intensive livestock farms.

While it seems that the current meat debate is far from black and white – much like a mud splattered Friesian cow – if you’re among those still choosing to eat meat, look locally to enjoy the diversity that still remains today, at least until the last small abattoir closes.

Photograph: Benketaro

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