Abattoirs shut by inspectors' strike

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BUTCHERS AND supermarkets were facing an escalating campaign of industrial action at slaughterhouses after meat inspectors staged a 24-hour stoppage yesterday.

The Meat Hygiene Service said the strike would have a limited impact on supplies. However, officials at the public service union, Unison, said that most large red-meat abattoirs were shut yesterday and predicted that there would be two-day and three-day strikes unless the service improved the 4 per cent pay offer.

Management calculated that 450 out of 513 red-meat slaughterhouses were operational and 152 out of 156 white-meat plants. Managers said 60 per cent of staff worked normally.

Unison criticised management for employing Spanish vets to cover for striking abattoir workers, arguing that they were inexperienced. However, Johnstone McNeill, chief executive of the service, said that overseas vets often undertook the work and were suitably qualified.

Inspectors registered concerns that they would face a "barrage of abuse and intimidation" when they returned to work. As up to 1,000 officials staged their day-long protest, it became clear that the dispute also centred on what the inspectors say is a "climate of fear" at Britain's abattoirs.

Inspectors told The Independent that production lines were run at "breakneck speeds" in the drive to maximise profits and because of the keenness of slaughterhouse men to earn bonuses. The inspectors' job was to stop the line if they considered a carcass to be unsafe and officials often had to face the ire of those whose income was being affected, according to Unison.

One inspector in the North-west, who had decided to leave the service after years of alleged harassment, was thrown into a vat of faeces, offal and spinal cords - stripped out because of the crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy - as a "prank", according to his colleagues.

Inspectors have been locked in freezers, threatened with knives and guns, beaten up and had their cars stolen. Offices and property have been vandalised. Unison said from a survey it carried out, three-quarters of staff had been verbally abused.

"When a big slaughterhouseman is shouting at you with his face within two inches of yours and he's brandishing a large knife, that's intimidation," one inspector told The Independent.

Mr McNeill said the service worked closely with meat companies, but production lines were stopped regularly to ensure the safety of the products. The service took a "very robust line" over intimidation and violence.

t A Manchester slaughterman was fined pounds 500 for assaulting a female Meat Hygiene Service vet and ordered to pay pounds 50 compensation. Magistrates were told that Mohamed Akram Sheikh, 43, prodded the vet in the shoulder and used abusive and threatening language.