Written evidence submitted by the Small Abattoir Group (FS0027)

 

Summary

British farming and the production of higher quality products faces a number of unprecedented challenges in the coming year including the rising cost of energy and fuel, labour shortages and climate change pressuresThe Abattoir Sector Group was set up to support smaller, localised production through the existence of a network of strategically placed small abattoirs which can help to diversify the food supply chain and reduce risk in the larger producers being affected by disease outbreak or supply issues as well as being able to meet environmental objectives more effectively than those larger operators. The small scale and largely local market helped to underpin the resilience of food chains during Covid-19 as identified in the United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021when smaller scale producers provided a higher percentage of food into localised areas and also to an extent during the carbon dioxide shortage. There has been a focus in the UK on high density production with over 70% of farm animals now raised in intensive systems. This growth in intensive farming systems has driven intensification in the processing sector too with large scale abattoirs providing the capacity across the country for slaughter In 2021, AHBD figures show only 5.4% of cattle and 0.8% of sheep were killed in small and medium abattoirs in England. This poses a threat to food security and there needs to be more Government support for diversification through smaller operators

 

What are the key factors affecting the resilience of food supply chains and causing disruption and rising food prices – including input costs, labour shortages and global events? What are the consequences for UK businesses and consumers?

 

UK is around 54% self-sufficient in food on the plate[1], with the remainder being imported, mainly from the EU. The UK has focused much of its self-sufficiency in relation to meat supply on small numbers of corporations operating through large scale production lines. The Government had to bail out CF industries in September 2021 when routine maintenance stopped carbon dioxide production at its now closed Cheshire plant, and this resulted in disruption in the pig market with slaughter weight pigs being kept on farm as there was no slaughter capacity in abattoirs. The small-scale abattoirs were able to step in and help to an extent but with the low number of these abattoirs and the restrictions on LSUs going through them before a higher regulatory burden kicks in meant this was limited. There is concern that a repeat this year of a shortage could bring further disruption to an industry under pressure from imported pig meat produced to lower standards. The higher regulatory burden and increased operational costs incurred if a small abattoir exceeds its annual 1000LSU limit is a barrier to progress within the small abattoir industry, this leaving no incentive to increase capacity which would enable them to provide further support in situations such as the pig crisis.

 

Small abattoirs supporting small producers can help to address global events by ensuring supply of localised meat products, however labour shortages are an issue at this level as much as they are at the higher scale level. Owing to under investment in small and local infrastructure as well as a heavy and difficult regulatory system it has not been seen as an attractive career route and without some Government support there will be further closures in small abattoirs and cutting plants. A National Craft Butchers survey in 2021 suggested 59% of small abattoirs will close within 2 - 5 years, without intervention. The reasons given by abattoirs for closure were ranked as follow: 1- regulatory burden, 2 - economics and 3 - lack of qualified staff. Indeed, we have seen at least 4 small abattoirs close in the UK, due to these reasons, since this survey was carried out. The consequences of this are a reduced choice for consumers who will only be able to buy largely from supermarkets and will not be able to choose higher welfare, local products. There will also be increased risks within a supply chain that is heavily reliant on a small number of large-scale operators. The main service provided through small scale operators is private kill which adds value for many smaller scale farmers. A survey of abattoirs by Prince’s Countryside Fund shows each small abattoir provides private kill services for an average of 79 farmers each year. 44.9% of farmers surveyed said private kill retail business was “essential to the viability of the farm” and a further 20.5% said it was “very important to the viability of the farm”. Larger abattoirs rarely offer private kill as it disrupts the production line and takes too much time. The PCF survey asked how farmers would change their farming business if their current abattoir closed and the majority (58%) would reduce the number of livestock finished on the farm, and 62% would reduce the size of their breeding herd/flock. The Agriculture Bill (2020) provides power to the Government to support farmers with the conservation of native livestock, this can only be achieved with a local abattoir network. (Agriculture Act 2020 (legislation.gov.uk) With closures of small abattoirs, private kill service provision will be lost and will impose considerable financial stress on many farm businesses across the UK.

 

A further risk is the impact on wider issues such as nature recovery, conservation and regenerative farming. The majority of private kill retail farmers (76.2%) sell rare and/or heritage breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs and a lack of small abattoir provision would lead to 30% changing the breeds they farmed. The closure of the abattoir would adversely affect the conservation of genetic resources and species and habitat biodiversity. All of this can affect future food security.

 

Global issues such as climate change are significantly impacting farming systems and biodiversity throughout the world. More extensive systems such as traditional mixed farming, agroforestry, regenerative, pasture-fed and conservation grazing can be more resilient in the face of climate change pressure because they work with nature and nurture the natural ecosystems around them, this also has a beneficial impact on biodiversity and soil health. Many of these systems utilise the native breeds of livestock that are suited to the local environment; reducing the need to import financially and environmentally expensive inputs such as feeds and chemical fertilisers that are needed to sustain intensive agricultural systems. However, the viability of these smaller scale farms is at risk without a strong network of accessible small and medium abattoirs which enable them to sell their products to local consumers. A reduced abattoir network, concentrated in a small number of large units leads to a reduced choice for consumers, fewer rural employment opportunities and less money circulating in the local economy.

 

What is the outlook for UK food price inflation in the short and medium term? What policy interventions should the Government consider to manage these pressures?

 

Food price inflation in Britain will remain at high levels into 2023 which will be a possible barrier to access good healthy food to all and for export opportunities. The opportunities for UK food and farming remains in marketing British food as a higher welfare and high-quality product and the Government already has a farm support and investment system being trialled on animal welfare schemes in 2022 for adoption in 2024 which provides the opportunity to reward farmers that produce to higher animal welfare standards. Environmental standards should also be included in this focus and for meat production that would support more local production with shorter transportation and often direct from the farmer to the point of sale. Alongside this, the proposed mandatory labelling on method of production needs to move forward as well as environmental labelling to give consumer clearer and more transparent information. This will enable consumers to support food produced to a higher standard and whilst it is too simple to say that all local food is better, for meat it does tend to be the caseA stable local supply of food will help to manage food price inflation de-risking a narrow food supply system and global issues affecting it. Government policy needs to set out how it will support small abattoirs and improve the regulatory burden so that the provision of local food remains viable.

 

How will the proposals in the Government’s food strategy policy paper affect:

  1. the resilience of food supply chains?;
  2. the agri-food and seafood sectors?;
  3. access to healthy, nutritious food?

 

The Government’s food strategy outlines three objectives[2]:

 

 

The resilience of food chains is in diversification, innovation and reduction of risk for which both small scale and large scale play a role. The absence of a strategic network of local abattoirs will undermine the financial models of small-scale farmers and we will end up with only one stream of production at the large scale which brings both risk and restriction.  Improved processing infrastructure will support small farmer viability and drive market access for independent enterprises helping to ensure the growth of SMEs and food related businesses. The private kill model allows farmers to add value to their livestock enterprise(s) and by retailing to largely local consumers and rural food businesses this trade supports businesses and employment, and therefore is fully aligned with the government commitment to “strengthen the rural economy. SME businesses can support greater localisation, reduce carbon footprints associated with delivery, create jobs, and deliver social good for communities in many other ways, helping the UK to build back better and more fairly as well as providing more food security.

 

With a push from Government for consumers to buy more locally produced meat and dairy, large scale producers can focus on export potential and the research and innovation over new products including plant-based and fermentation thus expanding the UK agricultural markets and again improving food security.

 

Lower input, more extensive systems such as traditional mixed farming, agroforestry, regenerative, pasture-fed and conservation grazing, where animals are integral to the land management and supporting the eco-system are more likely to be done on the medium to smaller farm holdings delivered directly by farmers.  Improved local access to processing infrastructure is essential if the Government is to deliver its plans for net zero, and the 25-year environment  plan with the objectives for nature recovery, combined with improved environmental land management and carbon drawdown. Tackling the environmental issues has to be one of the greatest priorities in regard to long-term food security objectives.

 

 

Is the current level and target of food self-sufficiency in England still appropriate?

 

 

The current level and target for self-sufficiency have remained fairly stable for some time, a large proportion of products that we are not self-sufficient in cannot be produced sustainably in this country due to climate conditions, although this may change gradually as climate change affects growing conditions. Self-sufficiency is an important element of food security and although there may not be significant scope to change the current level or future target, without having negative impacts on environmental targets, there is potential to manipulate the sustainability of the country’s current level of self-sufficiency.

 

The SFT Feeding Britain from the ground up report, published earlier this year, outlined a radical rethink of how the UK should approach self-sufficiency. Although it did not suggest significant changes in the overall level of self-sufficiency that the UK could hope to achieve, it did suggest that to achieve sustainable self-sufficiency the system needed considerable changes. Intensive production of chicken, pork/bacon and dairy products is heavily reliant on imported feeds and chemical fertilisers, while some of these inputs are produced in the UK, many such as soya, are imported from overseas. By reducing the number of intensive farms and utilising the resulting available land in the UK for diversified food production, especially horticulture and protein crops for direct human consumption, the UK could become truly more self-sufficient on a more sustainable basis. This approach would reduce dairy, pork, chicken and egg production, whilst those businesses that remained would be smaller, more extensive systems producing higher quality products. Beef and lamb numbers would be similar to existing but be focused on smaller, pasture-only systems, including those integrated into arable rotations for fertility building. An ambition such as this would bring multiple benefits for the provision of healthier food from healthy farming systems. But again, this would not be possible without a strong network of small and medium abattoirs providing a variety of services to smaller scale farmers in their local region. (V2SFT_Feeding-Britain-from-the-Ground-Up-single-page-view-compressed-for-web.pdf (sustainablefoodtrust.org))

 

Whilst there has been closure of many small and medium abattoirs, there is little evidence that the overall capacity of the network has declined or that the supply chain is running out of capacity. There has been a consolidation of the supply chain, with larger abattoirs and processors increasing capacity to meet retailer demand and we are largely self-sufficient in the UK, however we are becoming more reliant on that level through intensive large scale systems which come with risk and reduce choice. The 2020 report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare set out that in 2018 a total of 19,718,680 animals were slaughtered across 248 operating plants but 32 abattoirs in England slaughtered 88% all of the sheep, while just 19 abattoirs slaughtered 73% of all cattle. The EFRA committee discussed this issue during its 2021 inquiry into Moving Animals Across Borders during which the Minister agreed with witnesses that abattoirs are “strategic assets.” He said that “we have to recognise that there is a strategic-asset argument to make to sustain the existing abattoirs and encourage new ones, where possible.”  He also said that the Government can be economically interventionalist, if it chooses to be, and that the abattoirs network may be an area that needs to be addressed. The Committee responded by stating that supporting and bolstering the UK abattoirs network will benefit our food security and protect animal welfare and that Defra should set out and enact its approach to funding the UK abattoirs network as a strategic national asset within six months.

 

How are the rising cost of living and increasing food prices affecting access to healthy and nutritious food?

 

There is concern that the increasing food prices will affect access to healthy food and certainly locally produced meat can be higher in price than some of the supermarket offers which may deter some consumers.  Nonetheless consumers are becoming more aware of differing standards and the health implications of choosing low standard products. It is interesting to note that every year since mandatory labelling of eggs was introduced in 2004, sales of free-range eggs have continued to rise, including during the banking crisis and the Covid pandemic and this indicates that people are still willing to pay a bit extra for what they consider to be higher standard products.  Access to healthy and nutritious food needs to be considered through our policy work too and interlinked into public procurement and the setting of food strategies regionally.

 

How could the Government’s proposed land use strategy for England improve food security? What balance should be stuck between land use for food production and other goals – such as environmental benefit?

 

The Government’s Food Strategy commits the Government to produce a land use strategy by next year.  This is an opportunity to tackle development pressures and poor agricultural management to deliver food production and other land uses including that for environmental benefit. Considering food production and environmental benefit as separate land uses encourages intensive agricultural land use at the expense of environmental benefits, however it would be better to focus on promoting food production land use that works in harmony with nature and the environment to ensure a sustainable landscape. Adopting agricultural systems such as regenerative, traditional mixed farming, organic, agroecological and pasture-fed will ensure food production and environmental benefit simultaneously. These systems also promote higher animal welfare. Pasture fed livestock, on permanent grassland or integrated into arable rotation to help build fertility for crops, is a key element and this means a shift away from intensively produced meat and dairy. Animal feed demand is putting huge pressure on UK land. For instance, wheat and barley grown to feed farmed animals uses 2 million hectares of land or 40% of the UK’s arable land area.[3] A move away from grain fed livestock systems would free up this land area for the production of food suitable for direct human consumption. The UK’s land use strategy should highlight the environmental, landscape and animal welfare benefits of pasture fed grazing animals. The small-scale farmers already grazing their animals on pasture must be supported through localised infrastructure and effort should be made to maintain their production before further closures of small abattoirs means they reduce livestock numbers or stop farming altogether.  Within the land use strategy there also needs to be consideration of how production infrastructure is put into strategic locations to support different models of production. For example, abattoirs currently fall under industrial planning rules, which has impeded the development of any new smaller abattoirs, it would be better if they were considered under agricultural requirements.

 

END

 

 


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021-theme-2-uk-food-supply-sources#:~:text=About%2054%25%20of%20food%20on,subsequent%20indicators%20will%20set%20out.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-food-strategy/government-food-strategy

[3] https://www.wwf.org.uk/press-release/transform-uk-farmland-boost-food-resilience-tackle-nature-crisis#:~:text=Wheat%20and%20barley%20grown%20to,the%20UK's%20arable%20land%20area.