SCOTLAND’S ABATTOIRS are at ‘breaking point’ and without government intervention to support smaller operators, local meat supply chains could be under threat.

This warning from the industry comes as farmers are met with long waiting lists as abattoirs struggle to cope with higher demand for meat, forcing them to travel further afield to slaughter their stock when they are in prime condition.

The SF was told that ongoing labour shortages and a rule book that gets heavier every year, is pushing smaller abattoirs ‘to the brink’.

Chair of Mull Slaughterhouse, Flora Corbett, explained that the sector had been pushing the Scottish and UK Government’s to view small abattoirs as a public good that needs to be subsidised, but that it has been falling on ‘deaf ears’.

“If we got 5% of what farmers received in support, we would be able to survive and not have to spend half our time looking for grant money,” she said. “We are appreciative of the Scottish Government Food and Marketing Grant, but it only covers 40% of capital costs, so we need to find the other 60% from private sources.”

Even though the Isle of Mull abattoir has turned a profit this year and has increased its slaughtering capacity to meet rising customer demand, she said that without government support, they would continue to live a ‘hand to mouth existence’ and that local businesses depended on its survival.

“Small and large abattoirs all have to play by the same rule book and there are new rules coming out every year, strangling the sector with more red tape.

“We had to install CCTV, even though the kill hall is so small the vet can see the whole process, and we had to buy a new pig stunner for £5500, despite our last one being tested regularly and working well,” she continued. “These extra and unnecessary costs are threatening the bottom line of small abattoirs which are already at breaking point.

“The government go on and on about where food comes from and developing local food networks, yet don’t support it in practice. If we went back to basics and looked at a smaller scale, we could have a thriving local food economy.”

There used to be 30,000 abattoirs in the UK in the 1930s but there are now only around 90 left with the capacity to supply the growing demand for local and sustainable meat in the UK.

CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden, warned that more abattoirs will continue to go out of business every year: “Farmers often face waiting lists or are turned away, or must travel hours to reach an abattoir that provides the service required. This is bad for welfare and the environment and is forcing some farmers to change their business or give up on local meat altogether.

“We should be aiming for animals to travel no more than 30 miles to slaughter and that all local abattoirs should have modern facilities enabling the highest in animal welfare.”

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers has reported a 12% shortfall in staffing at Scottish abattoirs and warned that labour shortages are only going to increase by the Autumn – when hospitality is expected to kick back into full swing – leading to a higher demand for meat.

"The situation has not been helped by the fact that a relatively significant number of workers from the EU have not sought a post-Brexit settlement deal in Britain, preferring to return to their home and stay there,” said a SAMW spokesperson.

“Haulage is another rising problem for many companies. While regular contract arrangements are generally being maintained, any one-off or periodic haulage requirements are proving extremely difficult to fill due to a shortage of drivers.

“The labour situation is already bad and can only get worse and the government must act now to address the issue, rather than waiting until it is too late.”

One small abattoir in the southwest of England reported that there is a major shortage of applicants in their area, due to the fact that so many EU workers have returned home. They are understaffed by 25% and have had to cut back on what services they can provide, adding that farmers are now often waiting more than a month to get animals slaughtered.

NFU Scotland added that a number of Brexit-related issues continue to cause significant problems across the whole supply chain. “The availability of labour, both seasonal and permanent, remains very tight on farms. Regular discussions with other stakeholders indicates that recruiting and retaining permanent staff through all other parts of the food chain, including haulage, abattoirs and food processing is proving to be very difficult.

“Current industry difficulties highlight that there is a clear need to address this shortage with some short-term measures and look at how, in the long term, we can train and recruit more people.”

As the SF went to press, we were told that a meeting had been called by the Minister for Employment, Richard Lochhead, to meet with agricultural bodies to discuss what action is needed, to address some of these challenges.

A Scottish Government Spokesperson commented: “Scotland’s food and drink sectors play a key role in our economy. However, we are aware that Covid-19 and Brexit have delivered a massive blow to these industries, and this has led to a number of staffing issues across the whole food and drink industry

“The Minister for Employment is this week holding a labour shortages roundtable with industry on this issue that will include the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers and Scotland Food and Drink to provide an opportunity for industry representatives to have their concerns heard.

“In addition, the Scottish Government provides funding to Skills Development Scotland to help with the training costs for Modern Apprenticeships.”