One man's meat

The worldwide ban on British beef is lifted tomorrow, but BSE isn't the only problem facing Britain's meat industry. In the next year alone, it is forecast that all of Britain's remaining rural slaughterhouses may close, costing 10,000 jobs and bringing to an end a centuries-old tradition. And that would really be something to beef about
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The Independent Culture
When the ban on exports of British beef is lifted tomorrow, very few farmers, slaughtermen or butchers will throw their hats into the air, for the spectre of BSE has dealt their industry a blow from which there will be no swift recovery. Exports of beef were once worth pounds 520m a year, but so far only one company, St Merryn Meats in Cornwall, has thought it worthwhile to take out a new export licence.

John Draycup, St Merryn's livestock procurement officer, regards the lifting of the ban as "a very positive step", and is cautiously optimistic. "We know it won't be easy," he says, "but there are markets within Europe which have a tradition of buying British beef, and they're still looking for the best meat they can find. It's a question of rebuilding customer confidence."

Here at home, it seems that confidence has already been fully restored. When the BSE scare broke on 21 March 1996, and supermarkets swept beef from their shelves, consumption dived by 27 per cent. Yet trenchermen quickly recovered their nerve; sales bottomed out at the end of June, and within a year they were back almost to their previous level. Figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission show that household expenditure on beef in the UK was almost the same in 1998 (pounds 1.6bn) as in 1995 - pounds 1.8bn. The ban on the sale of beef on the bone, introduced by the British Government last year and still in force, had even less impact.

Today in Britain the liveliest debate centres on the future of small abattoirs, more and more of which are being choked to death by the ever- mounting pressure of regulations emanating from Brussels. Last week a demonstration in Westminster staged by the Countryside Alliance drew attention to the fact that in the last six months 32 rural slaughterhouses (20 per cent of the total) have been forced to close, and forecast that unless the present regulations are amended, the whole lot will go out of business within another year.

This would be a disaster - not only because it would mean the loss of some 10,000 rural jobs. Almost more important, it would eliminate the source of the best meat that money can buy. Half the point of local abattoirs is that the animals killed in them do not have to travel far, and therefore suffer less stress than those that spend hours on the road. Quite apart from any considerations of cruelty, every butcher knows that stress produces inferior meat; adrenaline entering the muscle turns it purple, and the end product is liable to be tough.

To gauge the feel of things, I spent part of Monday morning in the Broomhall slaughterhouse in the village of Eastington, near Stroud. A typical family firm, this one has been going for more than 100 years, and is now run by three brothers, Roger, Peter and Stephen. A butcher's shop fronts on to the street, with the abattoir tucked in behind it, and the family has three other shops in nearby towns and villages.

The Broomhalls slaughter animals once a week, and the throughput on Monday was typical: about 40 pigs, 70 sheep and seven bullocks. As usual, work had started at 7.30am and would end about 12 hours later, or whenever the day's tasks were finished.

When I arrived, a 14-month-old Charollais-cross bullock was being killed. It had come from a farm only 15 minutes' drive away, and its end was swift and clinical. It was pushed into the stun-box - a form of crush - and a captive bolt was fired into the front of its brain, causing the animal to drop instantly.

As its 1,200lb body rolled out on to the floor of the slaughter-room, it was hoisted by the back legs, bled by having its throat cut, then expertly skinned, cleaned out and cut in half. Each side, weighing about 330lb, was left to settle before being moved into a chill room where it will hang for at least 10 days, in a temperature just above freezing, to acquire tenderness and flavour.

Together with a couple of assistants, the three brothers were working like beavers, their white clothes spattered with blood. Between the rattle of chains from the electric hoists and the snickering of knives being constantly resharpened on steels hanging from their belts, they kept up a running commentary on events past and present.

When Stephen said, "Our industry's been hit over the head with a big stick", he wasn't casting aspersions on the obligatory inspector from the Government's Meat Hygiene Service, who was hovering in the background and steadfastly refusing to answer any question I asked him. Rather, he was castigating Brussels for enforcing yet another layer of supervision, in the form of an OVS, or Official Veterinary Surgeon.

This vet may easily be Greek or Spanish, perhaps with poor English and little knowledge of British conditions, and, as Stephen told me: "He does just about what you're doing - in other words, bugger all."

At the moment, because their throughput is relatively low, the Broomhalls are required to have a vet present for only one hour a day, at a cost of pounds 53. But if the latest directives from Brussels are implemented, that charge could go up catastrophically, by as much as 400 per cent.

For the time being the Broomhalls are doing reasonably well. As Roger says: "Because our customers know us, our beef sales were back up to normal within a month of the BSE scare. As for beef on the bone - demand's never dropped, even though we aren't allowed to fulfil it." Knowing how his customers' appetites vary with the weather, he watches the forecast every day and adapts his cutting accordingly: "In winter, stewing-beef goes well but now, in a hot summer, everybody wants steaks and chops."

Leading the campaign for small abattoirs is John Chadwick, who runs a slaughterhouse and butcher's shop in the village of Standish, near Wigan in Greater Manchester. In recent months he has been urging the Government to switch from the present system of paying inspectors by the hour, which penalises small firms, to one of "headage" or carcass payments, which would generate far more cash from large operators killing several thousand beasts a day.

Like many farmers, he still does not accept that there is any connection between BSE and its human equivalent, Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. He points out that, with the official inquiry still in progress, the link remains unproven, and he believes that the human sickness is more likely to derive from chemicals such as the organochlorines used in sheep-dips and other pesticides. "Think how much beef slaughtermen, butchers and their families eat," he says. "That must put them at a thousand times greater risk than anyone else, yet nobody who's worked in those industries has ever gone down with BSE."

When panic threatened in March 1996, he stuck a notice on the counter in his shop proclaiming that "It is not in our interest to kill our customers", and after two days, he "never looked back". Three years on, his business has nearly trebled.

If British people have stuck in characteristic limpet fashion to traditional habits, BSE has nevertheless caused a colossal upheaval. All together more than 200,000 cattle have been slaughtered and burnt, and the cost to the taxpayer has been some pounds 4bn.

Now that the ban on British beef has been lifted, anyone wishing to try exporting again will have to fight his or her way through a veritable thicket of bureaucracy created by the European Commission. Mr Draycup, of St Merryn Meats, concedes that it will be a "major procedure" to send beef abroad under the new Databased Export Scheme. A representative of his firm will have to make a positive identification of every animal he proposes to buy, on the farm where it has been reared. There he will have to verify its age and pedigree, together with those of its dam, and that information will have to be entered in the appropriate pro forma from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The details will then have to be submitted to the national database in Gloucester, and finally, in a specially dedicated abattoir equipped with the necessary computer, the identity of the animal will have to be validated yet again before its meat is taken off the bone and packed for sale.

Most British farmers believe that Brussels deliberately exploited the BSE scare as a means of suppressing agriculture in Britain. This, cynics claim, is the Eurocrats' long-term aim; they want to reduce this country to the status of a theme park dotted with interesting historical monuments, and downgrade farmers into becoming park-keepers, all for the benefit of tourists. The lifting of the beef ban is an admission that this policy has failed, at any rate for the time being.