A survey of more than 1,300 farming and food businesses across the UK has found that local abattoirs are a vital service, with 88% of respondents stating their closest abattoir is either essential or important to the success of their business, while 64% feel the availability, or lack of availability, of a local abattoir impacted their future business plans.
The survey, carried out by the Sustainable Food Trust and National Craft Butchers, highlighted the many benefits small and local abattoirs can bring, with respondents ranking animal welfare, the local economy and the environment as chief amongst these.
The survey found that the loss of small abattoirs, at a rate of 10% per year, according to the Food Standards Agency, has left abattoir customers reliant on only a handful of remaining operators, creating a fragile system that is vulnerable to collapse. Journey times have increased significantly, with some animals now travelling more than 200 miles to slaughter. Respondents also reported that many remaining smaller abattoirs are increasingly busy and difficult to book into. These factors have forced some businesses to close or limit their operations.
Remote and island communities have been particularly affected. One farmer on Orkney said: “Since Orkney abattoir closed in 2018 the situation here is dire – most of the free-range rare breed pig farmers have closed down. The next nearest abattoir costs us over £250 just for the ferry taking a trailer that can hold max 20 sheep, then there is the 30-mile drive to the port and the 110 mile drive to Dingwall.”
And a number of respondents were very clear that their business was entirely dependent on their local abattoir. One respondent said: “If this one closed, we would lose our business,” and another said, “We are very lucky but if it shut, I would have to stop livestock farming as the nearest would be too far away.”
More than 30 respondents used an abattoir which has closed down since the survey was conducted. One customer of Tottingworth abattoir, which closed last year, said: “Without a local abattoir a major part of our local livestock sales will disappear. In the South-East there are so few abattoirs left that losing any more would prevent sales and increase food miles.”
The survey showed that farmers and food businesses are keen to find solutions, with 64% saying they would be interested in cooperative-owned abattoirs and 81% expressing an interest in mobile abattoirs, with 73% saying they would pay more for this service. There was also interest in doing more with their products, as 33% said they would collect the hides and skins if they had access to further processing facilities.
To revitalise the sector, however, the Government needs a multi-pronged approach to address the problems that are leading to closures.
Megan Perry, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “This survey highlights that a diverse network of abattoirs throughout the UK is vital to farms of all sizes and to the viability of local meat businesses. We welcomed the Government’s announcement of funding for the sector, earlier this year. However, for this fund to have the impact that is needed, it must be accessible, broad and with a long timeframe, and it must be implemented alongside work to address other issues including regulation, recruitment and waste disposal costs. We will work with the Abattoir Sector Group and Defra’s Small Abattoir Working Group in progressing solutions to these issues.”
Eleanor O’Brien, Managing Director at National Craft Butchers, said: “Alongside funding, the Government needs to implement flexibilities that already exist within regulation specifically including the 5% rule, that will help smaller abattoirs to increase productivity, expand and thrive. Without this two-fold approach, the small abattoir sector will continue to stagnate, with severe consequences for farmers, animal welfare and supply chain diversity and resilience.”
For more information about the survey or the work of the Sustainable Food Trust or National Craft Butchers, please contact:
Head of Policy and Campaigns, Sustainable Food Trust
Managing Director, National Craft Butchers
The Abattoir Users Survey was a UK-wide survey conducted by the Sustainable Food Trust and National Craft Butchers between the 16th August and 22nd September 2022. Please follow the link to read the full report: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Final_abattoir_users_survey_web.pdf