Meat storage plan to aid sheep farms

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT moved last night to ease the deepening crisis facing Britain's sheep farmers with the announcement of a new scheme to help raise record low lamb prices.

Farmers leaders gave a warm welcome to the plan, which will pay abattoirs to freeze and store meat for up to seven months to keep it off the market.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, unveiled the scheme last night at a two-and-half-hour meeting with the National Farmers' Union to discuss their fears for the sheep industry. He also suggested that a nationwide cull of sheep was "possible", but the logistics and cost might be prohibitive.

Mr Brown said that he had asked the European Commission to introduce a Private Storage Aid package to restrict supply and help raise the prices paid to farmers.

Current EU policy prevents such intervention in the sheep meat industry, but with prices for ewes down to as little as pounds 2 each, the Commission may now open tenders for the PSA schemes in Britain and other states.

Under the plan, abattoirs and slaughterhouses undertake to remove sheep meat from the market and freeze it for up to seven months before releasing it again.

Ben Gill, the NFU president, said that the move was a "major step" in easing the pain experienced by sheep farmers at a time of "catastrophically low" prices.

"This will play an important role in restoring confidence in the prime lamb market. The NFU has consistently asked Mr Brown to apply for this specific measure so we are greatly relieved that our call has been heeded," he said.

"It is now vital that the Commission realises how critical it is they act on the minister's application and implements the aid as soon as possible."

Lamb prices have fallen by almost 30 per cent since July last year, while prices for the majority of other sectors, including milk, pigs and poultry, remain below the cost of production.

In a separate development, consumers will soon be able to choose chickens produced without controversial antibiotic growth promoters, Britain's biggest poultry meat producer said yesterday.

The Grampian Food Group, which supplies nearly one third of the 800m birds consumed by Britons each year, has decided to rear its chickens without the antibiotics, after concern that their widespread use may be fostering the growth of `superbugs'.

It is feared that bacteria which develop resistance to the drugs in poultry and other farm animals could be passed on to humans, with fatal results.

Grampian, which supplies all the major supermarkets and food retailers, has decided to phase out routine antibiotic use in all its flocks by the end of the year, and yesterday the Aberdeen-based company said it would indicate the change on its own-label poultry, which makes up about one third of its output.

Industry observers said yesterday that other big poultry companies would almost certainly move to their own antibiotic phase-out.