The Campaign for Local Abattoirs submitted evidence to the UK Government’s National Food Strategy in October 2019. The campaign group represents those interested in protecting local abattoirs and the future of local meat, including the Sustainable Food Trust and National Craft Butchers.
Click here for the pdf version of the submission.
Small abattoirs continue to close due to a harsh economic climate and poorly matched regulations (Campaign for Local Abattoirs, 2018). This creates problems for those supplying local meat markets (Kennard and Young, 2018). While UK beef and lamb producers have seen a downturn in demand recently, anecdotally sales of meat from pasture-fed, organic, free-range, environmental stewardship or indigenous breeds, are on the increase. This has been helped by campaigners promoting an eat less but better approach (see, for example, the Eating Better Alliance). Almost all such producers depend on the availability of a local abattoir. With red meat receiving negative publicity in the media, we explain why maintaining grazing livestock is vitally important for UK food system resilience and the transition to net zero global warming, and what issues the Government needs to address to set smaller abattoirs on a path to a sustainable future.
Food system resilience and grazing livestock
In terms of food system resilience, security and lower carbon emissions, there are environmental and health benefits associated with reducing unnecessary food miles and using the UK’s natural resources as efficiently as possible. This reduces the need to import food from drought-prone regions where 20% of fresh food imports are from regions threatened by climate change (Harvey, 2019). It also reduces rainforest clearance and diesel emissions in the UK.
One of the UK’s major resources is its grasslands. These are amongst the most productive on the planet, due to the UK’s soils and climate. Almost two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass (DEFRA, 2018), most of this for good environmental and agronomic reasons. Poor soils, steep terrain and a cold wet climate mean many areas cannot be cultivated, leaving grazing livestock as the only way to produce food.
In recent years, public opinion has increasingly been turned against ruminants due to their methane emissions and the claimed negative health impacts of red meat. However, while there are issues at a global level because methane levels are high and ruminant numbers are rising, a new methodology for measuring the warming impact of greenhouse gases demonstrates that a stable or declining population of ruminants does not add to climate change (Cain, Allen and Lynch, 2019). In the UK, cattle and sheep numbers have seen a 25% decline since 1985 (Zayed and Loft, 2019) meaning that ruminants in the UK are not contributing to global warming as significantly as is often claimed.
In terms of diet-health issues, a recent comprehensive study has shown that any possible risks are tiny (Zeraatkar et al, 2019), whereas there are significant health benefits from eating red meat within the Government’s recommended guidelines (NHS) and one review has found that people eating red meat regularly live longer than others, when both groups have an otherwise balanced diet (PURE, 2018). There is also good evidence to indicate that meat from grass-fed livestock (the predominant form of ruminant production in the UK) is significantly richer in antioxidants, important minerals and long chain omega-3 fatty acids than that produced from grain-fed equivalents (more common in other countries) (Daley et al, 2010; Elmore et al, 2004).
Importance of local abattoirs
Most of the producers who are successfully bucking the national trend of declining demand for beef and lamb, require access to an abattoir within an economic distance, because these businesses generally market only the meat from a single farm or defined group of farms. As such, they need to slaughter animals regularly, but rarely have enough animals on any day to make long distance transport viable. In addition, much of the growing public interest in local meat is due to the perceived welfare benefits of short journeys to slaughter.
The problems facing local abattoirs and how these could be addressed
Use of new technology in livestock and carcase inspection
Smaller abattoirs have higher costs for ante-mortem and post-mortem meat inspection. There are, however, a number of emerging technologies with the potential to reduce costs considerably, while improving animal welfare and food safety. The ‘Shaping 21stCentury Abattoirs’ project, run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, aimed at combatting fraud and improving food safety, has the potential to allow livestock to be inspected remotely with a higher degree of precision than is currently possible from physical inspections. Uptake of these technologies will require regulatory support and grant aid for smaller abattoirs.
Waste disposal and hides and skins
Another major disadvantage faced by many small abattoirs is the relatively high cost of waste disposal due to minimum bin sizes and charges, the requirement to treat specified offals separately and minimal competition in the rendering industry. The government could assist by bringing forward a review of the BSE regulations and providing grants for the installation of small-scale incinerators. Lack of competition in this sector was previously investigated in 1985 (Hansard, 1985) and 2007 (Office of Fair Trading, 2007).
A further problem relates to the dramatic fall in the market for hides and skins. This has affected small abattoirs disproportionately, with prices for hides as low as £4, compared with £35 in 2014. The UK now only has the capacity to process 20% of the hides and skins produced, having relied for some decades on China and Turkey. The Government should consider how it could incentivise the construction of new UK tanneries to increase resilience and eliminate the carbon emissions associated with the unnecessary global transport of UK hides and leather.
Bureaucracy and regulations
All abattoirs have to complete a large amount of paperwork (Mettrick and Houghton, 2018). This includes significant duplication for multiple agencies, which could be reduced. This burden falls more heavily on small abattoirs because the number of animals in each consignment is very much smaller, meaning that on average there are a lot more forms to complete per animal. This could be addressed by fast-tracking a review of overlapping paperwork between the agencies regulating abattoirs.
Plans to run a trial to investigate greater use of derogations in small abattoirs are under consideration.
Large abattoirs have economies of scale, but also use their muscle to lure livestock away from smaller abattoirs. If the cost of transport fully reflected the externalities of emissions this would cease.
- Cain, Allen and Lynch, 2019, ‘Net Zero for Agriculture’, Oxford Martin Programme on Climate Pollutants
- Campaign for Local Abattoirs, 2018, ‘Agriculture Bill must ensure the survival of small local abattoirs’
- Daley et al, 2018, ‘A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef’, Nutrition Journal
- DEFRA, DAERA, Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Government, 2018, ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2017’
- Elmore et al, 2004, ‘A comparison of the aroma volatiles and fatty acid compositions of grilled beef muscle from Aberdeen Angus and Holstein-Friesian steers fed diets based on silage or concentrates’, Meat Science
- Harvey, 2019, ‘A fifth of UK fresh food imports from areas at risk of climate chaos, MPs warn’, The Guardian
- Kennard and Young, 2018, ‘A Good Life and a Good Death: Re-localising farm animal slaughter’, Sustainable Food Trust
- Mente, 2018, ‘Association of dietary quality and risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in 218,000 people from over 50 countries’, presentation at 2018 European Society of Cardiology Congress
- Mettrick and Houghton, 2018, ‘Red Meat Portal Proposal’
- NHS, ‘Meat in your diet: Eat well’, accessed online 27.10.2019
- Office of Fair Trading, 2007, ‘Animal waste: a review undertakings given by Prosper de Mulder and William Forrest and Son (Paisley)
- Zayed and Loft, 2019, ‘Agriculture: historical statistics’, House of Commons Library
- Zeraatkar et al, 2019, ‘Red and processed meat consumption and risk for all-cause mortality and cardiometabolic outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies’, Annals of Internal Medicine
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