More lean years for meat: Vegetarians and Germans may combine to squeeze an already troubled industry. Robert Cole reports

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The Independent Online
THREATS by Germany to ban imports of British beef could scarcely have come at a worse time for the UK red meat industry.

Over the past few years slaughterers have faced a combination of falling consumer demand and confusion caused by amendments to hygiene regulations.

But just as UK abattoir operators were coming to terms with this revolution, it looks as if one of the most promising new opportunities - export markets - will be clobbered.

Until recently, the decline in the UK market has been more than compensated for by increasing demand from the Continent. According to the Meat and Livestock Commission, the slaughterers' lobby group, exports of red meat to the Continent rose by 27 per cent in 1993.

But warnings from Horst Seehofer, the German health minister, have now raised doubts about the future for British beef exports.

MLC officials are keen to point out that nothing has yet changed. They also stress that Germany takes a relatively small amount of British beef and that, so far, there is no evidence that any orders have been cancelled.

Falling consumer demand in Britain has much to do with the subject now bothering the German health minister, however. Mr Seehofer is worried that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - the so- called mad cow disease - will spread to German herds via cattle imports from Britain.

As things stand UK red meat consumption is nearly 13 per cent below a peak achieved in 1979. Since BSE scare stories hit the headlines in 1990 red meat consumption has fallen nearly 7 per cent.

The picture is even gloomier because the UK population rose during the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1993 red meat consumption per head declined 18 per cent, and since 1989 per capita meat eating has fallen by 10 per cent.

And there are worries it may decline still further. Sentiment has recently received another knock by the discovery of a bovine Aids-type virus. Some have suggested that as many as 10 per cent of the nation's cattle are BIV positive.

Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture stress that there is no proof that BIV leads to a debilitating disease. They add there is still less proof to suggest that there is risk of the bovine virus spreading to humans. 'It is a storm in a teacup,' one said.

Insignificant squall it may be, but it continues a run of misfortune that is beginning to look dangerously damaging.

Longer-term shifts in culinary taste are not helping. Red meat is unfashionable. Dieticians tell us that eating steak clogs our arteries so we eat more chicken and fish. Vegetarianism is also gaining in popularity.

Consumer perceptions, however, are not the only difficulties facing the meat industry. A cocktail of bureaucratic interference stirred up between Brussels and the Ministry of Agriculture has made a tricky situation extremely difficult.

In the run-up to the creation of the single European market, European Union hygiene authorities decided to improve standards.

The implementation date was set for 1 January 1993, the day the Single European Act took effect. But because smaller abattoir operators (already suffering from falling sales and recession) could not afford the costs involved, and the political cost of putting abattoirs out of business was perceived to be too high, the UK government negotiated a last-minute deal.

Temporary derogations were granted giving operators up to three years' grace to get their slaughterhouses in order. To the smaller abattoir owners the derogations were a lifeline. But to the big players their introduction spelt disaster.

This was because most had anticipated the increase in hygiene requirements and had completed hefty capital investment programmes to comply.

Once the requirements were suspended, however, the abattoirs that had not invested gained a significant cost advantage over those that had.

The experience of Hillsdown Holdings, a stock market-listed food manufacturer, shows how unattractive slaughtering has become.

It used to be one of Britain's biggest slaughterhouse operators with 25 plants. In 1993, however, it decided to get out. At great expense in one-off costs, it sold some of the plants to smaller operators and closed others. Most abattoirs are now run by family-owned firms.

Mike Buswell, Hillsdown's main board director with responsibility for red meat, said: 'There are two main reasons why. The first was that the profitability of the industry is too erratic. It is erratic because the supply of livestock varies.

'For cows, sheep and pigs August, September and October is the slaughtering season and abattoirs have no trouble filling capacity. But supplies dry up in January, February and March.' So abattoirs are busy - and profitable - in the autumn but lie idle in late winter and early spring.

'Longer-term trends in livestock numbers are unpredictable as well,' Mr Buswell added. 'Unpredictability makes it a very difficult business for a public company to be in. We are under pressure to produce steadily increasing profits and dividends.'

But the second reason for Hillsdown's departure was that industry capacity showed no signs of shrinking. 'Derogations kept plants open at a time when livestock numbers were falling.'

Oversupply is the red meat industry's central problem. The number of abattoirs has fallen sharply in the past 20 years but capacity has stayed high because plants have become more efficient.

There were 1,980 UK slaughterhouses in 1972 and 647 in 1993. In 1972 the average throughput per slaughterhouse was 6,600 cattle units (a cow or equivalent amount); by 1993 this figure had risen to 20,500.

So while there are only one- third as many abattoirs in existence the surviving slaughterhouses are more than three times more productive.

The worst effects of the derogation will eventually disappear as all abattoirs conform to the new European standards.

Whether meat promoters can beat back the shifts in culinary taste and hygiene worries is more doubtful. The Meat and Livestock Commission is trying, however. It is planning a spring advertising campaign to follow its 'Meat to Live' slogan of last year.

But it is hard to see how the abattoir industry can enhance what looks like inherently low profitability. Slaughtering is a relatively straightforward manufacturing process. In addition, slaughterers inhabit an unenviable position in the supply chain.

The highest bidder gets the livestock, but the operator prepared to accept the lowest price for butchered meat makes the sale.

Couple these problems with overcapacity and the result is low profit margins.

As Mr Buswell says: 'There is nothing wrong with making a low margin, as long as you can utilise your capital base efficiently.'

Quite so. But the fickle flows of supply and demand suggest that capacity utilisation will be extremely hard to achieve.

(Photograph and graph omitted)