Abattoirs poised for cattle cull to begin

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The destruction of at least 21,000 cattle a week is due to begin this morning after 11th hour efforts to authorise more than 60 abattoirs and 80 markets to take part in the pounds 550m scheme.

The plans to remove cattle over 30 months at the end of their productive lives from the food chain, as part of efforts to eradicate BSE, have proved to be a logistical nightmare for the Government.

The scheme was expected to start on Monday but paperwork to approve slaughter houses and markets as collection centres for the cattle put it back by three days.

However, the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, yesterday told the Commons the slaughter was ready to begin. "Farmers will be anxious to have the finalised details," he said. "We will be sending direct to farmers a note setting all they need to know about the new arrangements."

Earlier, he tried to calm angry Tory MPs over the EU refusal to lift the worldwide ban on British beef after 30 senior Conservative MPs made an unprecedented appeal to every EU ambassador in the UK urging them to ask their governments to end the ban. Among them were former foreign secretaries Douglas Hurd and Lord Howe.

In a statement on his efforts at the Agriculture Council meeting in Luxembourg, Mr Hogg said the Government was pressing ahead with its legal challenge to the ban in the European Court of Justice.

The Shadow Agriculture Minister, Gavin Strang, told him: "We share your commitment to securing an early lifting of the ban on exports. It is very disappointing indeed that you have so little progress to report."

Mr Hogg came under heavy fire over the delay in the start of the scheme to dispose of cattle over 30 months. In addition to the 15,000 dairy cows slaughtered each week, which are at the end of their productive lives, there are an estimated 300,000 prime beef cattle above the 30-month limit which can no longer enter the food chain. To clear this backlog alone, the animals are to be destroyed at a rate of 6,000 a week.

Dr Strang warned that uncertainty surrounded the scheme. "Your failure to put this programme in place, as you agreed to do, undermined your position at the council meeting," he told Mr Hogg.

"It is absolutely vital, both in relation to the financial position of the farmers and the welfare of the animals, that this programme is brought fully into operation as soon as you possibly can."

After the animals have been slaughtered, carcasses will go directly to the renderers who will boil and crush the meat down to a pulp for incineration or landfill burial. However the Intervention Board has admitted renderers cannot operate at the same capacity as the abattoirs and a bottleneck is likely.

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