The Government scheme to destroy cattle over 30 months in an attempt to eradicate BSE and bolster public confidence in British beef is still facing huge logistical problems, with only half the anticipated number of animals being slaughtered in the first week.
Ministers had hoped to dispose of about 22,000 cattle a week, but only 11,190 cows were slaughtered between May 3 and 13, a shortfall which has alarmed the beef industry.
John Martin, chairman of the Livestock Auctioneers' Association, said: ''The scheme is still a fiasco. There is only one abattoir for every two counties and the East Midlands and Cheshire, both with a large concentration of cattle, are not covered at all.''
About 15,000 dairy cows at the end of their productive life are to be taken out of the food chain, as well as several hundred thousand prime beef cattle over 30 months old. There is also a backlog on farms of about 120,000 cull cows.
Under the scheme, administered by the Intervention Board, cattle will be slaughtered in abattoirs where the bovine offals such as the brain and spinal cord will be removed for incineration. Renderers then prepare the rest of the carcass for incineration or burial at designated landfill sites.
Only 21 of the 72 abattoirs registered to take part in the slaughter have been selected. The drop, which has infuriated abattoirs excluded from the scheme, was designed to ensure that throughput was limited to what the renderers could handle. At present, cattle can be slaughtered at a faster rate than rendered.
However, while the Intervention Board puts the rendering capacity at 18,000 carcasses a week, well below the number needed to clear the backlog, the UK Renderers' Association insists its members can deal with 25,000 a week.
Its secretary, Alan Sadler, said he could not understand why ministers and the Intervention Board were adamant that only 18,000 carcasses a week could be rendered. ''Obviously there is a limit to what we can handle but it is beyond 25,000 and it is possible we will be able to deal with more. If we are to run at maximum capacity we have to have a more structured scheme.''
He said the renderers have yet to be told how much they are to be paid by the Intervention Board for carrying out the work. A pounds 115m package was agreed last month to compensate them for the loss of selling bonemeal and beef products such as gelatine and tallow, but there is still no agreement on payment for involvement in the scheme.
An Intervention Board source revealed that problems with the rendering capacity could be overcome by putting carcasses into cold store. It is understood storage space for 30,000 cattle will be available within a fortnight, which could double a few weeks later.
The spectacle yesterday of hundreds of farmers in Westminster, lobbying MPs about the disastrous effects of the EU ban on British beef, reflects the mood across the beef industry.
The longer it takes to clear the backlog of about 300,000 cattle the more painful the impact on the industry.
John Martin, chairman of the Licensed Auctioneers' Association, said: ''Everyone is exasperated. There not only seems no end to the crisis but no start to resolving it.''
He said the longer the animals remain on farms, having to be fed for slaughter, the smaller the value of the compensation once cattle have been put through the scheme.
However, there are some signs of recovery in the beef market - sales at auction are returning to what they were before the BSE scare although prices are still down.
The Meat and Livestock Commission reported sales at auction of heifers and steers, the prime beef cattle, were at 18,088 for the week ending 5 May, only 2,000 down on the same period last year. But the price difference is stark - a fall from 121p per live kilo to 103p which is hitting farmers and auctioneers hard.
At the height of the crisis, in the week ending 30 March, only 771 prime beef cattle were sold at auction, with the price dropping to 98p. Prior to the latest BSE scare, sales stood at 19,346 at 119p. Inside the meeting at Westminster Central Hall, farmers were addressed by Sir David Naish, the National Farmers' Union president, and Sandy Mole, Scottish NFU president. They then walked to the Houses of Parliament to press MPs for a lifting of the ban as they prepared for a two-day debate on the EU agricultural policy.
However, the main talking point was the slaughter scheme. John Hardwick, from Hereford, said: "I have a herd of 200 cattle. At the moment the market value is depressed by 20 per cent and I'm here to reinforce that we need support until market confidence has returned - otherwise our existence is seriously threatened."
Jan Rowe, who farms near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, added: "With the Government scheme to destroy cattle, farmers are suffering because the process isn't properly managed and only exists on paper - it needs speeding up."
The expense of feeding also worried John Littlefair, an NFU official from Hartlepool, who said: "There is great uncertainty about the money available for feeding because farmers have basically not been paid for nine weeks and have been sitting on their assets.''
Exporters are to take legal action over the Government's handling of the beef crisis in an effort to secure compensation for the total collapse of their world market. The International Meat Trade Association accused the Ministry of Agriculture of being discriminatory and negligent in drawing up a rescue package for the industry.
The organisation is seeking a judicial review of the Government's decision to throw a lifeline to farmers, abattoirs, meat processors and renderers without offering any compensation to exporters, facing losses of pounds 10m a week.
The export industry, worth pounds 520m a year, came to a standstill after the world-wide ban on British beef was imposed at the end of March. IMTA estimates that exporters have pounds 23m of unsaleable beef in storage - and as their stock value now exceeds the asset value of their companies many face collapse unless compensation is offered.
Jenny Burt, chairman of the IMTA export committee, said: ''I cannot understand why the Government is fighting for a lifting of the export ban at the same time as ignoring our crisis.''
The IMTA aims to demonstrate that the rescue package, unveiled last month by Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, is unequal. ''We are in the same industry as those sectors which are being compensated for being unable to sell the same product we deal in. It is unlawful discrimination,'' she said.
The IMTA argues that as exporters are unable to pay slaughter houses, who pay the farmers, the whole industry is affected. However, the organisation concedes its original proposal to convince the Government to buy unsold beef and put into storage for sale at a later date rather than dispose of it is now unrealistic.
Sales of beef are recovering after plunging in the wake of the BSE crisis, although butchers and supermarkets are still suffering from a lack of consumer confidence. Independent butchers, who traditionally use beef as their main product, saw beef sales fall by up to 50 per cent at the height of the scare. Now sales of steaks are returning to normal but mince, meat pies and sausages are still down.
John Fuller, director of the Federation of Meat and Food Traders, said most of the 3,000 high-street butchers who are members were encouraged by the recovery but are still seeking compensation for the loss of business.
He said: ''There is still a problem with consumer perception. It is such a pity for my members that the public see mincemeat as less safe than steaks. There is no difference.
''Pork and lamb sale have increased but we have still put in a submission to the Government for a fund to which our butchers can apply for compensation. There is injustice in its package.''Reuse content