Traditional livestock systems, supplying local meat outlets, face extermination if changes are not made quickly to the current unfair system of charging for meat inspection. Small and medium-sized abattoirs and cutting plants are being forced out of business by crippling and grossly unfair charges imposed nowhere else within the EU.

The situation is so serious that the Soil Association has joined forces with six, apparently disparate organisations, to help save the smaller abattoir sector which organic livestock producers and consumers of locally-produced organic meat, depend upon.

Sir Julian Rose, a trustee of the Soil Association and Chairman of their Standards Board, will be presenting a 120,000-strong petition to Downing Street today (Thursday 12 October at 1.45pm), urging the Prime Minister to take urgent action to avoid another serious and totally avoidable crisis for the livestock industry.

Sir Julian said,

'These small meat plants are fundamental to the development of a successful and diverse organic sector and losing them affects both organic farmers and their customers who expect high animal welfare standards and short journey times for organic livestock.'

Other members of the consortium consisting of the Country Landowners Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, the National Trust, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will also be represented. They are all gravely concerned that the mass closure of small and medium-sized meat plants will affect a broad range of interests, well beyond the meat industry - from animal welfare, to wildlife and conservation, and consumer choice.

However, the Government has the answer in its own hands, according to Phil Stocker, of the Soil Association's Producer Services. A working group set up to look into this issue urged the Government in June to change the system of charging for statutory meat inspection from an hourly rate to one based on the number of animals slaughtered (a 'headage' rate). This would bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU, where meat inspection costs are lower than those in the UK and save many organic and traditional producers from disaster.

'We have been seeking the broadest possible support for this initiative because the Task Force has made it clear that to change the charging system for meat inspection could require additional Treasury funding for the Meat Hygiene Service,' said Mr Stocker. 'We know that in the present climate this will not be given lightly. However, any further decline in the number and geographical spread of abattoirs will have very serious consequences for animal welfare, the type of livestock systems which predominate in future, rural communities, wildlife conservation and public attitudes towards food and farming. As such we have found that organisations, which would normally have nothing in common, have joined with us in this initiative.'

'With the impending publication of the BSE Inquiry report, which is likely to highlight past problems in some abattoirs, it is important to stress that there are no food safety issues here. We are simply calling for a fair and equitable system of charging for meat inspection. Small and medium-sized abattoirs currently kill more than half of all sheep and cattle in the UK. This whole sector of the livestock industry is on the point of disappearing. If we allow this to happen many of the fundamental changes in food production: the move to less intensive, locally-based systems with high animal welfare, which the Soil Association has been working on to achieve, will simply no longer be possible.'

'Ministers must not ignore these warnings and pleas, and take livestock farming further in the direction of intensification and mass production just when consumer interest in food and the way it is produced is at an all-time high.'

Phil Stocker 0117 914 2417
Soil Association Producer Services Manager m 07879 443104

Sir Julian Rose m 0468 396048

Notes for Editors

Current Government policy threatens the viability of many of the country's remaining abattoirs and cutting plants which serve their local community. If these plants close, it will have a serious impact on a diverse range of activities :

The marketing of local meats will become virtually impossible, at a time when consumer interest in knowing the story behind what they are eating is growing rapidly - farmers markets, farm shops and independent shops are under threat. As a result consumer choice is seriously diminished.

There are animal welfare implications, with animals having to travel further to slaughter.

The look of the British landscape will be affected, particularly in livestock producing areas, as the viability of many traditional small-scale livestock farms will be threatened, which will lead to larger fields and more arable cropping.

Some of the country's best meat suppliers are small companies, relying on local sourcing, which is under threat.

Rare breeds of livestock, which are a vital genetic resource, depend for their continued existence on being marketed as rare breeds. Closure of local plants will destroy their ability to be specially marketed.

Conservation bodies fear that specialised grazing patterns, carried out by small-scale livestock farmers which enable special wildlife-rich areas to survive, will be under serious threat.

In an unprecedented move, a joint letter was sent to Nick Brown, Minister of Agriculture in July, signed by over 200 rural, farming, meat industry, conservation, wildlife and retailing organisations calling for the introduction of a headage system of charging.