EC turns heat on cockle-pickers

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The Independent Online
COCKLE-PICKING was once considered 'women's work' in the small village of Penclawdd on the Gower peninsula, South Wales.

When the men who worked in the coal mines reached 'dust-on-the-chest age', their wives would take to the beaches to keep the cash coming in.

'It was just a sideline in those days,' Jeff Williams, a picker for 40 years, said. 'It gave families that little bit extra on the side.'

However, for the 50 or so licensed pickers in Penclawdd today, cockles have become a full- time occupation, which earns them up to pounds 30 a day. Alternative employment is scarce, but recent EC legislation now threatens to put them out of business.

As of 1 January, cockle-pickers have been obliged to comply with hygiene regulations which state that cockles must be steamed at 90C for 90 seconds. To enforce the regulations, cockle-traders are required to install tachograph-style instruments to prove to environmental health inspectors that the temperature is kept high enough for long enough. If temperatures fall below 90C the machines automatically cut out.

'They want to be extra careful about food poisoning,' Mr Williams said. 'That is why they are doing it. They want on-the-record proof that the cockles are being cooked properly.'

Of the 11 families who rely on cockle-picking for their livelihood, only three have been able to buy the necessary machinery, and they now face bills of up to pounds 60,000.

One family has decided to drop out after 60 years, and the only hope for the remaining seven families is to form a co-operative where one purpose-built factory processes all the cockles.

Rivalry between the families is such, however, that they are reluctant to do this.

Bryan Selwyn, 65, has been picking cockles since he was 12, said: 'I won't allow my family to join the co-op. I learnt as a young man never to share with anyone. I don't intend to start now.

'The co-op won't work anyhow. There will be too much arguing between families. And for the life of me I cannot see that there are enough cockles in the bed to feed the machines.'

Mr Williams, who complied with the EC regulations and now faces 10 years of debt, is bitter about the regulations.

'There was no need for them. Our pride in our own produce ensures that our cockles are of the highest quality,' he said.

'We have to face the buyer at the markets across South Wales, you see. If a housewife has to pay 50p for a bag of cockles she will only come back to the stall if the cockles are nice.'

(Photograph omitted)