Refrigerated ships stand by for cattle cull

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The Independent Online
Ship brokers are standing by to see if the doubling of the slaughter of older cattle to beat bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) brings a revival of Government interest in chartering refrigerated vessels.

Some 55,000 cattle over 30 months old are expected to be killed this week and most of the carcasses will go into cold storage. So far, the Intervention Board, the government agency handling the cull, has been able to buy space in cold stores normally used for fruit and vegetables or meat and dairy products.

But doubling the throughput of the over-30-month scheme (OTMS) following months of muddle and farmers' protests is likely to use up conventional storage, forcing the board to turn to refrigerated trailers and ships.

Douglas Hogg, the Minister for Agriculture, yesterday began talks in Brussels aimed at the easing the ban on British beef exports. Four other United Kingdom ministers are attending the European Union council meeting, which could last until Wednesday.

When Mr Hogg paraded the faster cull at the Conservative conference on 8 October - with angry farmers besieging the building as he spoke - about 23,000 animals were being slaughtered each week and the backlog waiting on farms was some 416,000. He announced an extra pounds 16.6m to boost cold- storage capacity.

The latest estimate of the backlog by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is 393,000. Just under 50,000 cattle were killed last week, taking the total since the OTMS's introduction last April to more than 686,000. But the rendering industry can only cope with 20,000 carcasses a week. The animals are reduced to meat and bone meal and tallow which is stored for incineration - electricity generators are engaged in trials on using it in power stations. Meat for storage is stained yellow at the abattoir, cut up, put in boxes and chilled.

Mr Hogg's announcement and speculation that the board might turn to ships and containers produced a spate of offers of cold storage. Sheds used by the board for surplus grain are also being converted to cold stores, with two due to come on stream early next month.

"Once it became clear we were in the market, there was a lot more cold- store space than we had thought," a spokeswoman said. But she added that it was "still possible" the board might use lorry containers and "probably no more than a couple of ships".

Ship brokers who had been in discussion with the board last month suddenly found interest in refrigerated vessels put on hold. According to one, the board was looking for six-month charters. At the time, the rate was about $5,000 per day (pounds 3,200) for a vessel that would hold 5,000 tonnes of beef.

"It is a relatively expensive optiont," the broker said. Older vessels from the former Communist bloc or the eastern Mediterranean would probably be used; anchored or tied up in port, operating costs would be low.

The board has done trials using containers, which could be driven direct from slaughterhouses and stacked in secure container parks, plugged in to mains electricity. When it first looked at the possibilities, ships and containers were both three times as costly as conventional cold stores. The price of containers could have risen at the prospect of increased demand.

The BSE cloud has had a silver lining for some. The Reading-based Intervention Board has taken on some 70 casual staff to deal with all the paper work associated with the cull.