Is the UK’s network of small abattoirs on the brink of collapse? Having lost more than sixty small abattoirs over the past decade, the UK was down to just 108 small red meat abattoirs at the start of this year. Since then, and despite efforts to address some of the problems, a further three have closed. Many more are seriously struggling to stay in business and without urgent action from the Government, we are likely to see a catastrophic loss of small abattoirs across the country. This would have a devastating impact on the future of local food and sustainable farming systems.
At a meeting of small abattoir owners last week in the North of England, attended by the Food Standards Agency, National Craft Butchers, the Sustainable Food Trust and other organisations, concerns were raised about the future of the industry and potential solutions were discussed. Owners spoke about the burden of regulation, lack of effective communication, rising costs and falling income. The FSA pledged to improve communication with small abattoirs, and everyone agreed that cooperation and better understanding is crucial. Ultimately what’s needed, however, is central government support.
The UK is clearly going through a period of enormous change, with Brexit sparking a review of British agriculture that has seen Government consultations on a future Agriculture Bill and National Food Strategy, as well as individual consultations on agricultural policy for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many of the points raised in these consultations focus on the need for a sustainable and resilient future food system in the UK, that includes strong rural economies and high welfare farming. The Government has already indicated it would like to see animals slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible, and the consultation on the National Food Strategy, headed up by Henry Dimbleby, called for a humane agriculture sector.
Yet, the current reality tells a different story. Small abattoirs are still being driven to the wall. Without local abattoirs, the vision of a truly sustainable food system would be untenable, with farmers no longer able to slaughter livestock close to their farm nor have the meat returned to them, to be sold direct to consumers or through local businesses. Consequently, we would see a decline in small farms, and a further rise in large-scale, intensive production, with centralised slaughtering, processing and retail taking an even larger share of the market.
Some areas of the country are already experiencing the reality of this. According to one farmer on Orkney, the closure of their Island abattoir last year has meant some sheep are travelling over 600 miles to slaughter. Sold at market, they are taken by lorry all the way to Wales to be killed in a large-scale abattoir in Merthyr Tydfil. The carcases are then transported by road to Leicester for processing and then some of meat is returned to Scotland to be sold in supermarkets. This presents multiple issues, not least the welfare of the animals and the carbon footprint of the transport, but Orkney is not alone in experiencing these problems.
The carbon footprint of long distance livestock transport is a particular concern. Government has committed to a zero carbon economy by 2050. Many argue this isn’t soon enough, but either way, eliminating all unnecessary transport of live animals and meat to reduce greenhouse gas and air polluting diesel emissions, would be an important step to achieving this goal.
In August this year, I was in the Western Islands and visited four of the Island abattoirs during my trip. What was striking about the Islands was how crofting is still so much a part of the landscape and way of life, with 77% of the Western Islands’ land area held in crofting tenure. Flocks of sheep and herds of cattle populate the hills and fields (and often the roads), still managed in a traditional way. These hardy native breeds, fed on the rough but species-rich Island grasslands, produce delicious, full-flavoured meat which can (or at least should) be a unique selling point for the Islands. Farmers and food businesses could do more to capitalise on the tourists who flock there seeking an authentic Island culture and cuisine. Some already do so – I ate some delicious home-grown lamb on the Isle of Iona – but widespread championing of local food was surprisingly lacking. Mull, a large island, popular with visitors, currently has no butcher’s shop, while the abattoir owner on North Uist complained of people choosing cheap meat from the supermarket over local products. Stornoway on Lewis, despite having a well-run, council-owned abattoir, gets meat delivered every day by a Tesco van from mainland Scotland to their Tesco store.
This disconnect is a nation-wide issue, of course, with many people opting for cheaper supermarket meat that lacks provenance rather than that which is locally available, but it seems even more stark on a remote island with an active farming community. A joined-up strategy of support that capitalises on local food, increasing demand, promoting public procurement and strengthening local brands and small businesses, seems lacking. Demand for local food and a passion for provenance are on the rise in most areas, as is demand for meat from sustainably managed high welfare farms, including grass-fed, free-range and organic, even though overall demand for beef and lamb has declined. Promotional bodies, retailers and the Government need to catch up and begin supporting these trends.
Despite the current lack of support for abattoirs, farming remains crucial to the Scottish islands and most crofters are highly dependent on the small abattoirs that provide an essential service. The abattoir on Mull, for example, is operating at capacity and has a waiting list of customers. But running costs are high for small abattoirs, forcing them into debt and eventually out of business. Without access to agricultural or other small business grants or subsidies, abattoirs depend on covering their costs through the business alone. Keeping a building such as an abattoir up to standard can be expensive, with floors, roofs, electrics, chillers, handling pens and other infrastructure all needing regular maintenance. Requirements for new technology and equipment are also hitting hard. The legal requirement for CCTV in all slaughterhouses in England has put most small abattoirs out of pocket, to the tune of around £5,000, with no grant aid available.
UK abattoirs have also been facing confusing new legislation, which in some cases requires expensive upgrades to electrical stunning equipment and head restraints to be fitted on cattle stunning boxes. Other costs include excessive paperwork, with significant overlap between multiple regulatory agencies, audits, water testing (for some) and waste removal, which has become increasingly expensive
Along with high running costs, we have seen a simultaneous decline in the value of by-products, especially hides and skins. At the meeting last week, abattoir owners expressed dismay at the fact hide prices had plummeted to just £1 each, compared with £35 in 2014, while sheep skins are worth nothing. Some abattoirs are even having to pay for them to be taken away as waste. What used to provide an important source of income, which for many made the difference between profit and loss, has become yet another expense. The reason for this collapse in price is still not clear. Many UK tanneries have closed over the years and now, there is only capacity to process a fifth of the hides and skins we produce. For many decades the rest have been exported to China, Turkey and Italy.
It is believed that the collapse in demand and prices owes something to the current trade war between the US and China, but it may also be driven in part by two other trends. These are China’s current attempts to move away from processing waste products for other countries, and the shift in the fashion industry from natural fibres to synthetic materials, in part driven by the rise of veganism and vegetarianism.
The other side of this is that many small abattoirs, with just modest financial support – no more than pro rata that which was made available for the building of the UK’s mega-slaughterhouses a few decades ago – could diversify and strengthen their businesses, with multiple benefits to the local economy and the environment. The abattoir owners on Mull, for example, would consider developing a retail aspect of their business and, perhaps, setting up a tannery to add value to their hides and skins if they had adequate support.
What is clear from visiting abattoirs and speaking to the owners first-hand and meeting regulatory bodies and industry representatives, is that government action is needed to prevent the collapse of the small abattoir sector. Food Standards Agency staff are working toward improving the regulatory environment for small abattoirs and others, such as the Prince’s Countryside Fund, are supporting small abattoirs through one-off donations, as well as funding appropriate research. Yet, this on its own is not enough to address the unique combination of pressures currently facing the sector.
It is vitally important, therefore, that provision for grant aid, capital improvements and specific financial support to address the current crisis, should be included in the Agriculture Bill or whatever alternative funding approach is adopted for agriculture after the General Election, to ensure we still have local abattoirs in the future.
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