Richard North, 30/08/2021  

While the Afghan saga continues to fester, I thought I would stay with the general theme introduced yesterday and, in particular, address the problem of worker shortages in UK abattoirs, with the attendant difficulties this is creating.

Before delving into the issue though, it is helpful to have a quick romp through some of the history of the slaughtering sector, for which this is quite helpful in covering the early stages.

Starting before 1939, we find that slaughtering was still part of a retail butcher's normal routine. Thus, in England and Wales there were approximately 12,000 private or company-owned slaughterhouses. Most of these were small premises which were only used once or twice a week. In addition, some 120 local authorities provided slaughtering facilities.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, with the rapid introduction of rationing, the sector was effectively nationalised under emergency regulation. The Ministry of Food became the sole buying and selling agent for fatstock and assumed control of all slaughtering. The industry was immediately concentrated into 700 slaughterhouses and later into under 500. This remained the number until the end of control in 1954.

In 1955, a year after de-control, local authorities had reassumed control over slaughterhouses and had been for the first time given the responsibility of ensuring that adequate slaughtering facilities were available for their areas. By then, 4,226 private licences had been issued, and local authorities themselves provided 212 slaughterhouses, which they also managed.

By 1961, the industry had seen a period of rationalisation in England and Wales, with large numbers of closures, particularly of small slaughterhouses. These closures had been induced by the new regulations governing hygiene, management and prevention of cruelty. Even so, the number of slaughterhouses still stood at 3,326.

In 1964, the EU promulgated its first red meat hygiene directive, 64/433/EEC and, although the UK was not then part of the EEC, the rules were applied to UK enterprises exporting to the bloc. Simultaneously, MAFF officials started "encouraging" local authorities to reject licences for slaughterhouses engaged solely in the domestic trade.

Thus, by 1970, the number had fallen to just over 1,900 and, by the late 1970s, after the UK had joined the EEC, the number had dropped still further to around 1,350.

Official figures for England and Wales then recorded 839 left in 1985 and, with new EC Single Market" legislation in the pipeline, the number dropped sharply to 659 in 1990, to 599 in 1991 and 545 in 1992.

As the grip of EU law tightened, the number fell even further by 2003 to a mere 320. In 2018, only 248 were left, slaughtering 19,718,680 animals in the year. And, as an indication of how the industry had concentrated, just 32 abattoirs in England had slaughtered 88 percent all of the sheep, while just 19 slaughtered 73 percent of all cattle.

Still the number continued to fall, now standing at a historic low of 249, which even the government recognises is too low. It now wants to eliminate excessively long journeys, which ultimately mean that animals will have to be slaughtered closer to the point of production.

Now turning to the current recruitment crisis, it may seem counterintuitive but one of the answers may well be many more slaughterhouses, but with a focus on medium-sized units, defined as those killing less than 30,000 animals a year – typically about 100 a day, of all species.

The reason why this could ease the recruitment problems is that such enterprises are built on a more human scale. Very often family-run enterprises, they provide better working environments and, being more dispersed, can rely on local labour without having to trawl a wide catchment area, with all the problems that brings.

Here, it is important to realise that, if you socialise the work environment, even generally unpleasant jobs become more tolerable. People will do them because of the opportunity to relate with other people. In a family firm atmosphere, with everyone mucking in, including the boss who will often fill the gaps, you can also get a level of commitment which you simply don't get in an anonymous corporate environment.

Before there can be any restructuring of the industry, though, attention must be paid to the reasons why the sector has contracted so savagely. And essentially, there are three main influences.

Not in any particular order, the first is the regulatory burden, the effects of which could be seen as early as the 1960s, after the introduction of the UK's 1958 slaughterhouse regulation, with the imposition of the EEC law and then EC Single Market legislation, and also the EC mandated BSE controls.

Secondly, there is the natural and long-standing tendency for the industry to concentrate and rationalise, to benefit from the economies of scale and also to service the large supermarket groups and food processors which are the main customers of the sector.

The third – rarely fully appreciated – is that for much of its modern history, the slaughter of animals for human consumption has been regarded as a public service, with provision not only regulated by local authorities, but also made available and managed by them. Before the Single Market legislation took effect, about 40 percent of the kill was in local authority abattoirs.

It we are ever going to reinstate a network of medium-sized slaughterhouses, all three issues – in my view – would have to be addressed. Firstly, the regulatory burden must be reduced, which means dumping EU law for meat intended for domestic consumption, and reinstating a more rational regime.

Secondly, supermarkets and processors must be prevailed upon to source from smaller slaughterhouses. This could be partially achieved by placing a mileage restrictions on the transport of live animals, which would effectively limit the size of abattoirs by restricting their catchment areas.

Thirdly – although they would probably reject the idea – local authorities might be induced again to set up their own slaughterhouses, initially at least until a network is re-established, whence they could be sold on to private operators. Either that, or there will have to be tax and investment incentives to persuade private investors to build slaughterhouses of a specified size.

Here, we would do well to emulate continental practice where, in a number of countries, slaughterhouses are owned and managed by farmers' cooperatives. This development is often assisted by tax-breaks and legislative concessions, with direct central government support, which makes it more profitable for famers to engage in downstream activities.

On the other hand, supermarkets themselves might be encouraged to consider vertical integration, also owning and managing their own slaughterhouses, dispersed throughout the country, as did the Co-operative movement at one time.

Certainly, we have far more flexibility than we had when we were members of the EU – especially in the regulatory sphere – and many more options than simply importing cheap labour from abroad.

The essential point, though, is that whatever options are available, change is not going to happen spontaneously. The industry, as it stands, is still wedded to quick-fix immigration, and the concentration of processing.

On their own, they seem unable to understand that big is not always better, and that economy of scale is very often a mixed blessing. Human-scale enterprises, in the long-run, are usually more sustainable.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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