Abattoirs profit as farmers scramble for cash

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Allegations that agents acting for abattoirs are buying cattle aged over 30 months at auction to boost their profits added to the huge logistical problems facing the Government slaughter scheme yesterday.

The Intervention Board, overseeing the cull to try to eradicate BSE admitted the scheme was open to abuse.

Auctioneers and farmers told the Independent that cattle over 30 months, which should go direct to collection centres for slaughter, are being bought at market by agents on behalf of abattoirs. Around 500 such cattle were expected to go to auction in Carlisle today.

Guy Pargeter, of the Farmers Union of Wales, where only two abattoirs are participating, said: "Farmers need to clear their backlog. It is easier for them to go to market where middlemen will buy to fulfil the consignment they have put in for, but they are not getting as much as they would with compensation."

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, raised the issue in the Commons, claiming some abattoirs were refusing to take cattle over 30 months, thereby forcing farmers to sell them at auction. A Ministry of Agriculture spokesman said: "We cannot see the problem, it is up to the farmer."

It also emerged yesterday that three abattoirs have pulled out of the scheme following pressure from retailers refusing to take beef from slaughter houses also culling cows. Two abattoirs have joined forces so that one takes the cull business and the other the retail trade.

Ministers hope to dispose of about 22,000 cattle a week, but since the scheme began on 3 May only 38,542 have been slaughtered. The breakdown is 15,973 in England, 809 in Wales, 7,925 in Scotland and 3,882 in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the battle between the Government and sections of the beef industry intensified yesterday after exporters confirmed they were taking legal action against the Ministry of Agriculture, claiming compensation for the beef industry is discriminatory.

The International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), representing the exporters, is hoping to secure leave to seek a judicial review later this week. IMTA is calling for a one-off payment of pounds 18m to cover stocks of beef which have been unsaleable as a result of the ban.