Farming: Small abattoir support vital for local food economies

Livestock should not need to travel unnecessary distances for slaughter, so supporting the rollout of local abattoirs across the country has to become a national priority.

The Scottish Government is yet to pen the finer points of a future support system for Scottish agriculture, but high on the list has to be providing financial support to stem the rapid decline of small abattoirs, which are critical to protecting local food supply chains.

Over the last few years, consumers have become more interested in making sustainable food choices, which has led to an increased demand for local, traceable, and high welfare food. We should all favour a system where the meat we consume has been reared and killed locally, and that the money from that animal is absorbed back into the local economy.

However, both the UK and Scottish governments don’t appear to be joining the dots when it comes to supporting local food business models, with current rules and regulations favouring large scale abattoirs, which is forcing smaller facilities to close their doors.

Read more: Support to farmers who feed this country should be a given

Small abattoirs process less than 5,000 head of stock per annum and have declined in number from 264 in the UK in 2001 to only 90 in 2020. In contrast, large abattoirs – which process 30,000 plus animals per annum – have increased in number from 32 in 2001 to 44 in 2017, as processors consolidated operations.

In Scotland, there are 24 licensed red meat abattoirs in operation, but due to poor geographical spread, there are many areas of mainland Scotland, including parts of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Argyll and Bute, where animals have to be transported more than 100 miles from the farm to be killed.

The situation is even more bleak for Scotland’s island communities where attracting and retaining staff is getting very difficult, and the running costs are very high despite the small volume of stock needing processed – it makes the running of these operations economically unviable without government support. Small holders are being forced to travel lengthy journeys by both land and sea just to kill a small handful of stock.

Orkney’s abattoir closed in January 2018 and now all livestock has to be ferried off the island to the mainland for slaughter. In 2019, Mull slaughterhouse was facing a similar fate, but luckily received £10,000 of financial support from the Prince’s Countryside Fund (PCF) to pay for a necessary infrastructure upgrade.

The abattoir provides a lifeline for smallholders on the Isle of Mull and the surrounding islands, but also attracts customers from the likes of northwest Mallaig, Fort William and Kintyre. Its closure would have required livestock to travel a further 145 miles by road and ferry to the Scotland’s Central Belt.

The abattoir is open once a week and processes around 50 head of stock, including sheep, cattle, and pigs. Although they are in high demand from customers, their manager told me that since receiving the PCF grant, they continue to live a hand to mouth existence and spend half their time looking for funding to keep their doors open.

The fact of the matter is that small facilities are not profit generating: the overhead costs are too high, and all abattoirs, no matter their size, have to adhere to the same rules and regulations – a rule book getting heavier and heavier each year.

This year, all abattoirs had to have CCTV installed, which cost Mull slaughterhouse around £5,000, and they had to buy a new pig stunner for £5,500, despite their previous one being fully checked and safe to use. Larger abattoirs can absorb these costs, as they process a much higher volume of stock and therefore make larger levels of revenue, but these blanket rules for all are pushing small operations to the brink.

Read more: Trade ambitions ignoring labour struggles at home

Island slaughterhouses were offered up to £5,000 by the Scottish Government to assist with installing CCTV, but the manager of Mull slaughterhouse explained that handouts wouldn’t need to be given each time a new rule is introduced if abattoirs qualified for subsidy payments in the first place.

The decline of abattoirs was raised in last week’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into “Moving animals across borders”. Defra minister Lord Benyon told MPs that the UK Government would be addressing the serious shortage of abattoirs UK-wide by providing support for existing facilities and exploring mobile abattoirs and hubs, to service more remote parts of the country. However, he didn’t seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet as his boss George Eustice, who only the week prior had told the industry that the Government would be making no such move to increase the number of abattoirs.

While Defra gets its ducks in a row, they might consider reflecting on some of the Covid outbreaks which took place at a handful of the bigger abattoirs during the pandemic, flagging up serious resilience issues within the nation’s food supply chain. Quality Pork Limited in Brechin, Scotland’s only pig abattoir, which processes around 6000 pigs per week was forced to close its doors, leading to a backlog in pigs waiting to be killed. It hammered home the message that this country needs to become much more resilient to future shocks by addressing local abattoir capacity.

As future support for the industry looks likely to be tied increasingly towards providing environmental goods, it is a no brainer that subsidies for small abattoirs should make the cut. Not only would this reduce the environmental impact of meat production by reducing food miles, but it would improve animal welfare by reducing the distance to slaughter.

The Scottish Government shout from the rooftops about supporting local food production, so it is time to turn these warm words in to action and invest in the infrastructure to support a thriving local food economy.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992