Workers in despair as meat industry dies

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THE Government's attempt to boost consumer confidence has paralysed the British meat industry. The knock-on effect of measures taken last week is threatening the whole agricultural infrastructure.

More than 5,000 people who handle and process meat and poultry are already estimated to have been sacked or put on short time; thousands more will follow.

"We heard of 700 laid off from the meat industry in Northern Ireland on Friday," said Barry Leathwood, head of the agricultural section of the Transport and General Workers Union. "The longer this crisis goes on the greater the chance that we will see thousands of jobs disappear, perhaps for good."

As the world ban on British beef took effect, demand fell by 90 per cent. Livestock markets all over the country stood empty.

"The entire industry is gridlocked, nothing's moving," said meat industry consultant Richard North. "It is hard to believe that the full effect of the measures taken by the Government last week were properly thought through. The UK meat business is worth pounds 3bn a year. It is also extremely well integrated. It is as if a huge `off' switch has been thrown."

The farmers' plight is well documented; not so well appreciated is the pressure on meat processors. Abattoirs and wholesale butchers have seen overheads surge as their workloads have shrunk.

Their difficulties have been compounded by the ban on the agricultural use of bone meal. Until last week slaughterhouses and meat processors could sell the bones, horns and hooves left over after butchering for up to pounds 15 a ton. Today they have to pay at least pounds 100 a ton to have the same material taken away, regardless of whether it comes from pigs, sheep or poultry.

"In days I've seen my beef trade fall by 90 per cent, and my costs rise," said Clive Barnwell, who employs 22 men in Milton Keynes. "We had to lay off two butchers last week and put a slaughterman on short time.Action must be taken in days not weeks. If we have to wait for Europe some businesses will have already ceased trading."

The meat industry has hitherto laid claims to being environmentally neutral, if not actually "green". For generations the principles of good husbandry and "waste not, want not" have balanced the books. Virtually nothing has gone to waste in livestock farming.

For years renderers have processed the remains of butchered beasts to provide protein for animal feed. The trade in bone meal products as a food source and as fertiliser has steadily grown to the profit of all. Overnight the government ban made this pounds 80m a year trade worthless.

On Friday the Ministry of Agriculture intervened with "temporary" cash aid to the renderers of pounds 1.5m a week to compensate for their lost market. But this has not helped the middlemen.

One furious Yorkshire slaughterman said: "The ministry has murdered this industry. From 300 cattle a week I am slaughtering just eight now. There will be suicides in this business if this is allowed to carry on."