As yet another small abattoir closes – is time running out for locally produced meat?
Tomorrow, Glossop based butcher John Mettrick will turn off the lights in his small abattoir for the last time. The irony of the situation is not lost on him. As Chair of the Abattoir Sector Group, co-founded with National Craft Butchers, the Sustainable Food Trust, and others, he plays a key role in the fight to save small abattoirs. He has also proudly opened the doors of his abattoir to the BBC for their ground-breaking Kill it, Cook it, Eat it programme, appeared on Countryfile, and spoken on national news about the vital role local abattoirs play in the rural economy. Yet now, over one hundred years and five generations of Mettricks later, the abattoir side of the family business has become the latest casualty in the battle.
Local abattoirs are a vital part of the infrastructure that enables consumers to buy high quality, locally produced, traceable meat. Meat from animals reared by small scale farmers who care deeply about their livestock. Meat from animals that have travelled the shortest possible distance to slaughter, reducing stress for them whilst also minimising damage to the environment.
However, according to the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) figures, small abattoirs are closing at a rate of 10% each year – meaning that within a decade they may disappear altogether. Yet demand for locally produced, environmentally responsible meat is growing, so why are small abattoirs like Mettrick’s closing at such an alarming rate?
Although the issue is complex, John feels it can be distilled into two core reasons, which lie behind the closure of his own abattoir business: inappropriate and burdensome regulation, and inexperienced on-site official veterinarians (OVs). Both contribute to conflict rather than collaboration and can demoralise staff who then leave the industry which is already suffering a crippling shortage of labour following Brexit. Morale has never been lower. For Mettricks this became painfully clear when their Institute of Meat award-winning, fully qualified slaughterman along with two fully qualified butchers decided to leave the industry giving John with no choice but to close the abattoir.
Regulation for the industry has been designed with large scale abattoirs and their customers in mind. As such it is overly complicated and simply unworkable in small abattoirs, where the owner is often the slaughter man and the person responsible for dealing with all regulatory requirements. According to John,
“The FSA acknowledges that the present one size fits all system does not work and through a 5-year programme (OTP) say they hope to be able to deliver a risk based proportional approach to regulation in the future. However, this will require legislative change to have any chance of a meaningful impact. The refusal from the UK Government to utilise even existing legislation to support small abattoirs means that in the meantime many, like my own, will have no choice but to close.”
Post BREXIT there has also been a shortage of highly qualified, experienced Official Veterinarians (OVs). As a result, Mettrick says it is not unusual for small abattoirs to become inspected by OVs who have limited experience of a low throughput multi species abattoirs, and some can ‘become bored or overzealous.’
The shock waves caused by the closure of a local abattoir are felt throughout the rural economy. Those affected most from the Mettricks shut down, apart from Brian their highly skilled slaughterman of 21 years, will be the 200 farmers who relied on the abattoir and cutting room services to run their businesses and who will struggle to find an alternative local processor. They are appalled at the closure, and many have messaged Mettricks directly:
‘It’s a massive shame. With Baileys shutting as well, it feels like all the people that actually care about what they do, are shutting…. I guess I will carry on best I can, but I feel that I am at the mercy of bigger market forces.’
‘I am just so so sad, not only for the loss of service to small producers, but for your staff. As I said, quite tearfully to be honest, I wouldn’t be doing what I am today if it hadn’t been for the guidance and support of you and your very patient and knowledgeable staff. ‘
Richard Young, Policy Director at Sustainable Food Trust had this to say,
“This is a very ominous development for all those farmers who manage to make ends meet by selling high quality meat from their own animals direct to consumers. If one of the best and most impressive small abattoirs in the country is forced to close, then yet more will follow. While farmers will try to find another abattoir, in many areas there are now no suitable alternatives and some of the farmers will eventually be forced out of business, as a result. The beneficiaries will be the supermarkets whose share of the meat market will grow further.”
John, also Legislation Director of National Craft Butchers, is understandably bitter,
‘Whilst Foreign Secretary Liz Truss celebrates trade deals, in truth the Government has taken their eye off the ball domestically and is in effect sacrificing small businesses in pursuit of these deals. The Government talk about the importance of animal welfare with short distances to slaughter, local meat, sustainably produced, but policy does not represent that. Their inaction is effectively killing off the very businesses that help deliver these objectives. Livestock farmers who wish to market their own meat, rare breed producers and other small businesses are being left high and dry as more abattoirs close.’