Industry losses reach pounds 50m in first week

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The Independent Online

The British beef industry lost at least pounds 50m in the first week of the latest BSE scare despite attempts by ministers to restore confidence in the meat trade.

The entire export industry, worth pounds 600m a year, was wiped out, at the cost in four days of around pounds 11m to businesses and hundreds of jobs dependent on the trade. It will not recover unless the Government is successful in lifting the European blanket ban on British beef.

The losses do not take into account the millions lost owing to the knock- on effect of the crisis. Meat processing firms, freight companies, lorry drivers, auctioneers, animal feed manufacturers and caterers have all been severely hit.

Last night beef farmers in Ulster were bracing themselves for financial ruin after they failed to get their product sold worldwide under a local label to differentiate from British beef. Over 20,000 jobs in the province depend on the beef industry.

Farming leaders and the Meat Livestock Commission are reluctant to put a figure on the costs of the BSE scare but it is understood that the domestic industry has lost half its business since the Government admitted a possible link between 10 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and infected beef - a loss of pounds 40m.

A spokesman for the Meat Livestock Commission, Ray Barrowdale, said much beef would have to be destroyed. "Wholesalers are not buying beef. Their fridges are full of meat and they will only shift it by discounting. Prices of beef in the supermarkets will probably fall by a half. If not the beef will have to be destroyed."

At cattle markets across Britain business slumped by 95 per cent. Pens normally crammed full of heifers and steers were empty. Only sheep and pigs kept the markets open.

As the beef scare broke out last week, prices fell on Thursday and Friday by 20p to 30p per kilo live weight, amounting to between pounds 100 and pounds 150 per animal. This week the prices have remained at that level.

Yesterday, at Shrewsbury cattle market, more than pounds 500,000 worth of business was lost when none of the usual 850 cattle was brought to auction. The picture was mirrored at other auctions across the country.

John Martin, secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers Association, said: "The crisis has crucified the industry."

He added that auctioneers, who take a 2 to 3 per cent commission on each sale, cannot see a way out of the crisis. Even though the price of pigs and sheep has risen sharply, beef has been their moneymaker.

Exporters have been forced to lay off staff as they watched their business dry up.

Anglo Beef Processors, one of the largest beef exporters and meat processors in Britain, had pounds 250,000 worth of beef turned away from the Continent in four days. The company said it had lost pounds 1m in export business during the first week of the crisis which forced it to make 52 staff redundant, lay off 140 and send 100 on leave.

As the crisis deepened it has emerged that depressed farmers are already being admitted to hospital because of distress caused by the BSE scare.

Dr Peter Higson, of the Clywdian Community Care NHS Trust, north Wales, reported that potentially suicidal cases had been treated. "Our trained volunteers are busy with calls. Farming can be a lonely business and there were already intense economic pressures before this latest crisis."