Thousands of jobs at risk as industry grinds to a halt

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The number of workers laid off because of the beef crisis soared yesterday amid fears that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost by the end of the week.

More than 2,500 abattoir and meat processing workers have already been made redundant, laid off or sent on leave owing to collapse in consumer demand. And with job losses continuing to rise, the Transport and General Workers Union called on the Government to pay compensation to workers facing redundancy.

The grim picture of the state of the industry was painted by Terry Lee, head of exporting at the Meat and Livestock Commission. "It is devastating. People have been sent home from abattoirs, cool-rooms are full of meat and the yards are full of cattle and the whole thing has come to a stop overnight,'' he said. "There are 15,000 people working in the abattoir sector and I suspect half of those have been temporarily laid off. Jobs are at risk unless we can find a way of moving meat through the system. Everything is clogged up at the moment.''

Farms, abattoirs, processors, vets, meat inspectors and hauliers are all major players in an industry which employs more than 500,000 people before shoppers buy their meat.

Among them are 8,500 haulage workers employed to transport cattle, 7,500 in the auction business, 62,000 in meat processing, 3,300 in animal by- products 25,000 agricultural workers, and 11,000 butchers. Furthermore, the number of workers affected is certain to rise as a consequence of the EC ban on beef products used in confectionery and medicines.

Beef sales plunged for the seventh day running at supermarkets across the country yesterday. The supermarkets group Somerfield reported a drop of 43 per cent since the announcement of a possible link between BSE and CJD.

A spokesman for Asda warned: "We are looking for real action, not just marketing trickery . . . There is no doubt that people are not sufficiently reassured yet as to the safety of British beef . . . People require more reassurance."

And a Tesco spokesman added: "Sales are noticeably down but we've seen a corresponding rise in other meats."