UK exports of live lambs boosted by French abattoirs: Penny Lewis and Nicholas Schoon report on trade concerning animal welfare groups

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The Independent Online
SISTERON, near Aix en Provence in the south of France, is famous for its lamb, which has a strong local reputation and commands a top price. But some Sisteron lamb has been a very special purchase - it has been grazing British pastures.

The French DGCC - the equivalent of the British Trading Standards Officers - have been investigating the Sisteron abattoir, the largest lamb slaughterhouse in France, alerted by abnormal statistics. Normally it would be expected to slaughter about 100,000 to 150,000 Sisteron lambs a year. But 560,000 slaughters had been recorded in 12 months.

Sisteron is not the first abattoir to come under scrutiny. The Provencale newspaper stated on 30 July that more than half the lamb in two regions sold under the brandnames Agneaux Des Bergers or L'Agneaux Francais was imported from Britain, the Netherlands and Poland. Not only is this harming French sheep producers, it is also driving a cruel and rising trade in British live-sheep exports.

The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, which campaign against the trade in live animals, consider the long, noisy and cramped lorry journeys to slaughter of livestock which may be only a fortnight old as one of the main animal welfare issues.

Live animal exports have expanded rapidly with the arrival of the European Single Market at the beginning of this year and the dropping of several key restraints on the trade. Checks on the condition of the animals by vets which were carried out at the ports before they embarked were ended; the checks are now carried before the journey begins. The trade with Spain, which Britain had effectively banned because of notoriously cruel practices at Spanish abattoirs, was allowed to resume. The meat industry believes exports will double this year from last year's record total of 2 million sheep, cattle, lambs and calves. French abattoirs, keen for extra trade to keep their throughput high, are buying live British lambs from exporters and stamping them with a French abattoir meat inspection stamp. This renders the meat 'French Produced' and fetches a premium price.

The British meat industry is losing about pounds 10m through loss of carcase by-products and also losing abattoir jobs.

It is expensive to transport live lambs - four times the price of exporting carcases. The exporters can only cover the extra transport costs and make a profit by selling the whole lamb to the French abattoir, including the fifth quarter: offal, skin, intestine (for sausage skins) and the lucrative fleece. This has a spin-off effect on the British leather export trade, figures which would be greatly enhanced were all export animals slaughtered in Britain.

Farmers fear restraint on the live export trade could harm their income. But they receive the same price whether their sheep are exported live or as carcase meat.

EC law says animals should not be transported for more than 24 hours, but investigations have shown that this is routinely flouted. The European Commission has proposed shorter intervals, but no overall journey limit.