Small abattoirs are the unsung linchpins of our local food systems. Without them, we could not have local, traceable meat production. Small-scale, high welfare farming, rearing of rare breeds, organic or pasture fed and the success of local food businesses, including direct sales like meat boxes and farm shops, all depend on the services of small, local abattoirs.
Small abattoirs form one of the cornerstones of a strong rural economy, enabling farmers to add value to their products through the way meat is skillfully butchered and processed. Most large abattoirs do not provide this service and do not return meat to the farmer for them to sell directly to consumers. Small abattoirs also provide jobs and build trust in the local community between producer, processer, retailer and consumer. This is something that has been lost as we’ve become increasingly beholden to large supermarkets, losing our connection with where our food comes from.
And with shorter travel time for livestock, smaller numbers being slaughtered and smaller trailers with lower ramps for loading and unloading, animal welfare is as high as possible, with stress for the animal kept to a minimum during the crucial last stages of the animal’s life.
Yet, the UK’s smallest abattoirs are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. With high running costs and an industry increasingly geared towards centralised, industrial food systems, many of them are losing money and find it hard to see how this will change.
There are now only 56 small red meat abattoirs left in the UK, with a third having closed between 2007 and 2017 and a further seven closing this year.
The crisis is due in part to a collapse in the value of hides and skins, with small abattoirs currently being paid as little as £4.50 for cattle hides and 10p for sheep skins, compared with £35 and £6.50 respectively a few years ago.
At the same time, waste disposal costs for most small abattoirs have increased significantly due to consolidation in the rendering industry and higher minimum charges for small quantities. Small abattoirs also face a range of other costs which make it difficult for them to compete economically with large slaughterhouses.
This puts small abattoirs at a major disadvantage compared with the very large slaughterhouses which process animals for multiple retailers. Large slaughterhouses have received tens of millions of pounds of public money in grants and also benefit from economies of scale, but the animals they slaughter generally travel many hundreds of miles at the cost of their welfare and the environment.
The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) launched a report at last year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference which exposed the critical situation for small abattoirs. This sparked the formation of the Campaign for Local Abattoirs which is a coalition between the SFT, National Craft Butchers, the National Sheep Association and other producers and abattoir owners. We have worked this past year to raise the issues facing small abattoirs with Defra and the FSA, as well as bringing them to media attention. We published a joint letter to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove, signed by 34 organisations, which can be read here. We are now calling for small abattoirs to be recognised as a ‘public good’ and for grants to be made available to help with the cost of structural improvements and investment in equipment. At present, these are only available to the 15 smallest abattoirs in Wales, with the Welsh Government having provided £1.1 million in funding specifically for this purpose.
We have also been conducting a survey of small abattoirs, the results of which will be presented at our session at this year’s ORFC.
So please come along, join our session and hear from our expert panel, Chaired by Lady Parker of Fir Farm, Gloucestershire, and with John Mettrick, President of National Craft Butchers and small abattoir owner, Bob Kennard, SFT Policy advisor and joint author of our report, Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, and Nick Palmer, Head of Policy at Compassion in World Farming.
The session takes place at 9am on Thursday 3rd January in the Christopher Room, St Aldate’s Conference Centre.