'Mad cow' culling plan mired in chaos

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The Independent Online
Government plans to dispose of at least 21,000 cattle a week, part of efforts to eradicate BSE ("mad-cow" disease), are in chaos two days before the cull is due to begin. Ministry of Agriculture officials are meeting meat-trade representatives this morning to try to resolve the logistical problems.

A source at the Intervention Board, which is overseeing the plan, said: "It is likely to be a very slow start. There are unlikely to be any animals disposed off this week." Under the pounds 550m scheme, the board is responsible for buying and destroying cattle over the age of 30 months.

In addition to the 15,000 dairy cows slaughtered each week, which are at the end of their productive lives, there are an estimated 300,000 prime beef cattle on farms above the 30-month limit which can no longer enter the food chain. To clear this backlog alone in a year, the animals are to be slaughtered and destroyed at a rate of 6,000 a week.

Farmers are to be paid a premium to match the market price. The animals are to be taken to cattle markets, acting as collection points, where they will be examined by a meat hygiene service to verify eligibility for the scheme. The animals will then be transported to authorised abattoirs which meet European Union standards.

However, it has not been decided who is to meet the cost of cattle in transit between auction markets and abattoirs, though the Intervention Board admits it is likely to foot the bill. Furthermore, the larger slaughter houses have said they will not take part in the scheme unless the rules are changed over how the cattle are weighed.

Compensation payments are geared to weight and the slaughter regulations state that cattle must be weighed when alive, rather than dead, which is how the large abattoirs operate. The Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers has said its members will not participate in the scheme without the dead- weight option. The most traditional abattoirs prefer to operate with live weight.

The Licensed Animal Slaughterers Association spokesman, Chris Ashworth, said larger abattoirs increase profits by using dead weight. "They have more lobbying power and there is a chance that the view they have put forward will be those which prevail."

However, he supported calls for animals to go direct from farms to abattoirs, provided that they have the appropriate facilities to store animals.

The Intervention Board source said there was no reason why an abattoir could not double as a collection centre, which is likely to inflame auctioneers who run the cattle markets.

The Licensed Auctioneers Association is looking to the scheme to compensate cattle markets for the loss of business owing to the beef crisis.

However, according to the Intervention Board, the abattoirs can work faster than the renderers who will prepare the remainder of the carcass for disposal. The plan is that the slaughter houses are to remove only the head, spinal cord, intestines and spleen from the animal for incineration. The rest, not considered to be at risk of BSE, is to be reduced to a form of extremely fine mince meat by the rendering plant for incineration or burial in land fill sites.

The Intervention Board source said it is at the renderers where the hold- ups are likely to be. It has not been decided how they are going to prioritise the animals. Many will have to go into cold store at the abattoirs. The Environment Agency confirmed only a small number of land fill sites, authorised to treat potentially hazardous material, will be used. A spokesman said: "These are high-quality, well-managed land fill sites and only a relatively small number will be used so that they can be policed."