Scotland’s meat industry was 'badly served by Westminster' over the course of 2021 – and it will be looking for some major political changes in 2022.

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers has spoken out about the lack of a 'workable and practicable' visa scheme through which to recruit skilled staff from EU countries. That failure of government, coupled with ever rising costs from all directions, had placed the sector in an 'extremely challenging position'.

SAMW acknowledged that Covid-19 had created a massive ‘beyond control’ challenge for the Government, but insisted that on a range of pertinent issues, Westminster could have offered useful help, but had chosen not to.

“Maintaining our workforce at a level that keeps the business viable has been the overwhelming concern for my members throughout the year, and, with virtually no real help available from Westminster, businesses have been left on their own to fight a lone battle to find skilled workers," said association president Alan McNaughton. “I include the emergency visa arrangements that were put in place in October this year in my criticism. This so-called temporary solution completely missed the point in the first place and hasn’t delivered to any significant degree in the two months since being put in place.

“Member companies desperately need a long-term solution, tailored to address a serious shortage of skilled workers, not a sticking plaster response designed to get us through Christmas and the New Year. Frankly, it didn’t deliver in the short-term and is unlikely to be any better next year. As such, the early months of 2022 will be dominated by continuing labour supply problems, accompanied by rising costs from all quarters," said Mr McNaughton.

“The inevitable consequence of a high demand for labour is that wage rates are rising across all industries, energy bills are increasing sharply, our compliance costs continue to climb, while the price we pay for our raw material is rocketing skywards. The cost burden our members endure is rapidly becoming unsustainably high. A market correction is looming which may well mean that an explosion of costs and prices at the retail level will be inevitable at some point in 2022 with processors, wholesalers and retailers being forced to apply cost increases to their end products. Official economic forecasts for the UK are already quoting inflation reaching 5% next year and there is no way the production, processing and retailing of red meat can be exempt from such pressures. It could even be argued, in fact, that food inflation in some primary areas is long overdue in the UK.”

SAMW said it was also seeking greater understanding and support from Government on a number of other issues. In particular, the Scottish pig sector had faced major problems in 2021, and aside from labour pressures, the most damaging was the loss of export licences to China, which caused huge difficulties up and down the supply chain. While the UK’s four pigmeat export plants, including Brechin, are now in the process of having their licences reinstated, there are still significant concerns over the ongoing shortage of butchers, which the new visa system is not easing, and the backlog of supplies on-farm which steadily built up during the peak of the sector’s crisis.

The Association also pointed out that exporting red meat in general to established customers within the EU had been a 'massive challenge' for smaller, niche product, businesses over the past year, to the extent that some operators had given up on trading opportunities which were previously extremely valuable and easy to manage.

"If Ministers are serious about boosting our export volumes, then a helping hand to provide a low-cost route to Europe and beyond is urgently required," suggested SAMW.

Highlighting the campaign to restore Scotland’s BSE status to negligible risk (NR) status, the wholesalers suggested that it merited attention from politicians. That NR status, on which Scotland originally led the UK, was lost in October 2018 following a single BSE case in northeast Scotland. This, said SAMW, had cost member companies around £90 million in lost revenue to date and needed to be urgently restored – ideally in 2022.

Turning to the Scottish Government, SAMW is also requesting some financial support towards extra costs incurred by the mandatory requirement for members to install CCTV cameras in abattoirs, a requirement which, it claimed, had cost one medium sized plant approximately £20,000. Writing to the Cabinet Secretary recently, the Association drew attention to the fact that while mainstream processing businesses have not been awarded support to cover their CCTV costs, grants of up to £5000 were awarded to island plants. In addition, SAMW also highlighted that some farmers have been awarded financial support under the Sustainable Agriculture Grant Scheme to install CCTV in their livestock pens. This imbalance needed to be rectified, it said, and support made available to all parts of the supply chain that are subject to this new statutory requirement.

Another support imbalance concerns the fact that while red meat processors face full-cost recovery for official controls, as delivered by Food Standards Scotland (FSS), other food sectors, such as fish processing, enjoy the free provision of similar controls.

"Twenty years ago, there were there were over 30 meat plants operating in Scotland,” said Mr McNaughton. “Now we have only 14 plants processing livestock, with many parts of the country being without an abattoir in the local area. While there are different reasons for this shrinkage, the constant burden of compliance costs on our members has been a major contributory factor, especially while our competitor industries in the protein supply market continue to be spared from paying any of these charges. This needs to change in 2022.

“To conclude on a more positive note, however, we are encouraged that the holding of COP26 in Glasgow enabled our Scottish supply chain to showcase the natural, grass-based qualities of Scotland’s red meat production to a global audience. It allowed us to distance ourselves from the intensive feedlot image on which so much negative anti-meat publicity is based. Educating the consumer on our environmentally friendly production systems must continue if we are to ensure our product is marketed to maximum advantage.

“It’s good to be reminded what a great product we have and to be able to remind our customers that beef, lamb and pork from Scotland is produced to such high standards of public health, animal welfare and climate sensitivity, and that these products are a vital part of a healthy balanced diet.”