Long road to slaughter

A crucial part of the meat industry is concentrated in a few hands, and our food suffers as a result

Amid the growing conviction in Britain that the food industry has lost its way, our greatest concern is reserved for the meat industry. A series of epidemics has severely shaken consumer confidence in the hitherto acceptable methods of production and distribution. When foot-and-mouth first hit the headlines, many consumers were staggered by the distances involved in transporting animals from farm to slaughterhouse and then meat from slaughterhouse to shops after processing. There are good arguments for reducing food chains as a way to make food safer, increase environmental benefits and animal welfare, support smaller, local producers and enhance consumer protection and choice. But as more consumers have turned to local markets, they have found a serious difficulty: a vital link in the shorter food chain has disappeared. In the past ten years, small and medium-sized slaughterhouses have all but vanished.

By last year, Britain, with its population of 59 million, had 350 slaughterhouses and cutting plants left. Austria, with a population of eight million) had 7,000. A crucial part of the British meat industry has become concentrated in very few hands. Small farmers who want to trade directly have to transport their animals for slaughter ever greater distances at often un-bearably high cost and with detrimental consequences to animal welfare and the environment. And large slaughterhouses prefer to buy from large farms to have a steady supply of standard carcasses. Organic farmers have been hit particularly hard. At the other end of the chain, small butchers' shops have found it difficult to buy meat from the large slaughterers and to stock a variety of cuts that serve the spectrum of consumer demand.

Like most regulations to do with agriculture, environment, food production and animal health, the inspection of slaughterhouses comes within European Union competence. The purpose of the 1964 EC directive is to harmonise inspection of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants across the union. Unhappily for the UK, meat inspection here has historically been conducted by meat inspectors rather than veterinarians (the Continental preference). The directive required the presence of a vet during and after slaughtering. As British vets are not trained in meat inspection, they had to be accompanied by meat inspectors to ensure the job was done properly.

To overcome the anomalies in inspection, the Meat Hygiene Service was set up in 1995. This self-financing regulatory agency oversees the system under which slaughterhouses pay for inspection services. But the payment method it chose - time spent on inspection and administration rather than headage of animals slaughtered - hit smaller producers harder. It also insisted that all slaughterhouses introduce structural changes to bring them up to "required" EU export standards, even if they weren't exporting.

Costs went up. A medium-sized slaughterhouse in Durham, which paid £44,000 for inspection in 1994-95, had to pay £110,000 in 1998-99. A small abattoir in Bedfordshire estimated that 100 per cent veterinary cover would cost it £420 a day. Under pressure, the charging system was altered this spring so that slaughterhouses may choose to pay by time or headage. What has not changed is the heavy-handed inspection (one owner of a small slaughterhouse said that there were usually three men working and three men watching over them) or the idiosyncratic system of marking that allows inspectors and vets to exercise personal judgement about hygiene standards. There is no independent appeals structure. Noted scientists and experienced meat inspectors agree that visual inspection, still the basis of the European system, is only marginally useful because most food hazards are microbiological (thus not visible to the naked eye). Other countries, such as Australia, have moved to a system of self-regulation with periodic unannounced inspections, as have other parts of the British food industry. Raw meat is not, in itself, dangerous for the reason that nobody eats raw meat. Yet its production is overwhelmed by regulation far in excess of that surrounding potentially more dangerous industries such as sandwich-making.

The EU is changing its outdated meat inspection system. The most optimistic prediction is that this will take five years, with no guarantee of bringing relief to the small producer. If we are to encourage shorter food chains, direct sales and sustainable local food production, we need small and medium-sized slaughterhouses. The recent change in inspection charges will have saved many. Some farmers are discussing opening their own, jointly owned slaughterhouses, and certain local authorities are ready to give grants to help new enterprises. Experience shows that small and medium-sized meat plants are very efficient and serve the local community's needs. They will not need constant subsidy, merely help in starting up, plus an efficient regulatory regime. The government will need to argue a more forceful and enlightened case in Europe than it has done so far.

Dr Helen Szamuely is director of Honest Food, which campaigns for diversity in food production, consumer choice and rural livelihoods. She worked on the report produced by an independent committee of inquiry into regulations and the meat industry last year