Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Meat and Livestock Commission



  MLC is confident that there can be a positive future for the British red meat industry. However, this is dependent on the collective response to the challenges presented by the current crisis. Change must be demand-led so that the revised industry structure is in a position to service customers efficiently both at home and abroad.

  The ingredients for change are:

    —  action by Government;

    —  adjustment in industry practice;

    —  industry restructuring;

    —  consumer-led market recovery.

Assessing the Impact

  As is well known the current foot and mouth disease outbreak has had a devastating impact on British agriculture and rural communities in general.

  Although it is not currently possible to quantify the full long-term impact of the outbreak, key indicators of the current impact on the industry are:

    —  the number of animals tied up in infected areas as percentage of total GB livestock population is:

      —  30-35 per cent of cattle;

      —  45-50 per cent of sheep;

      —  10-12 per cent of pigs.

    —  negative media attention is affecting red meat sales; major retailers are reporting current consumption declines of 5-15 per cent with lamb being particularly reduced. MLC is conducting extensive consumer research to monitor changing consumer attitudes;

    —  there is no immediate prospect for the resumption in exports of meat or livestock; as one third of British sheepmeat production and a fifth of pigmeat production goes for export, these two sectors are particularly damaged by this;

    —  confidence in the future of the industry is currently low—at a time when livestock prices for sheep and pigs in competing EU countries are comparatively high.

    —  the serious decline in breeding herd numbers in December is currently estimated to be as follows:

December Census ('000 head)
(forecast) 2001
% change 2001-1998

Breeding Cows
Breeding Ewes
Breeding Sows

MLC's Rule During the Crisis

  MLC has been playing a major role directly in support of the industry during the current crisis. This has included:

    —  regular research on consumer attitudes to the FMD situation to identifying changing responses to the ongoing media reports;

    —  introducing special FMD pages on the MLC website which have had widespread use by the industry. Weekly inquiries amounted to 941,500 in the week commencing 26 February and a very significant hit rate has been maintained since then. Information provided has covered a whole variety of practical issues during this crisis:

      —  announcements about all schemes as soon as they are made;

      —  industry guidance notes on farm biosecurity;

      —  emerging feeding arrangements for pigs, cattle and sheep;

      —  leaflets on "Keeping Lambs Alive" and "Lambing Outdoors" have also been available on the website;

      —  advice to abattoir owners and exporters;

      —  export of hide and skin advice;

      —  advice on disposal of blood and abattoir waste;

    —  an industry telephone help line which has operated for 12 hours a day for seven days a week. On the busiest day, nearly 1,000 calls were taken and for several weeks there was an average of 300 calls a day. As at 20 April over 11,000 calls had been received;

    —  technical and expert advice has been provided to Government and industry over a wide range of issues. These have included licensed movement of animals to slaughter, disposal of animals within the welfare scheme, new arrangements for meat market entry into the human food chain and advice on compensation levels for stock;

    —  the collection and dissemination of weekly price information and daily slaughterings data has been co-ordinated from MLC's headquarters;

    —  MLC staff have provided direct assistance on various Government schemes as follows:

      —  over 100 staff approving and organising over 160 cleansing and disinfection centres on the Long Distance Welfare Movement Scheme;

      —  over 150 staff on farm escorting vehicles and supervising at abattoirs at part of the Welfare Disposal Scheme;

      —  over 50 staff supervising the disposal of infected carcases at rendering sites;

      —  10 staff assisting MAFF Divisional Office with administrative and supervisory support.

Main issues after the crisis is over

  MLC is statutorily concerned with the efficiency of the British livestock and meat industry having regard to the interests of consumers. As such, the main issues can be summarised under four headings:

    —  those relating to action by Government;

    —  those concerning changes in industry practice;

    —  those implying industry restructuring;

    —  those for direct action by the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Issues for Government

  Import Policy for Meat. There is widespread concern in the British industry about current import policy—particularly as the FMD crisis has so quickly followed the Classical Swine Fever outbreak in East Anglia. In both cases there is a strong likelihood that imported meat was part of the cause. It is accepted that EU regulations largely govern import policy for the UK but it is imperative that the implementation of the policy is automatically reviewed. This should include procedures for "personal" imports through airports and ports.

  Adequate Staffing of the State Veterinary Service. MLC has had cause over the years to write to Ministers over staffing levels of the State Veterinary Service (SVS). We believe that the current outbreak has highlighted again the need for adequate resourcing of the SVS. It is recognised that in the event of a major outbreak such as at present, there will never be enough veterinarians to cope (requiring help from privately practising and overseas vets). However, we propose that there should be a review of the adequacy of current resources within the SVS to ensure that the service is able to cope with future demands. This review should include an effective surveillance role throughout the country including the involvement of veterinarians across the spectrum.

  The Importance of Exports to the Industry. Prior to the FMD outbreak, British meat exports had already been severely reduced due to the impact of BSE measures on beef exports and the strength of sterling on other meat export categories. However, the future profitability and competitiveness of the British red meat industry depends on a healthy export industry. In future policy, it therefore needs to take full account of negotiating renewed access for UK meat exports as soon as possible. An ambitious programme to re-open export markets, with practical backing at the highest levels, will be required.

  Public Interest Benefits of Red Meat. The value of red meat as part of a balanced diet is likely to be unfairly questioned as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. It is desirable that the Government assert the public interest benefits of red meat in its policies and pronouncements. These include (among others): the valuable dietary contribution of lean red meat; the employment and social benefits that livestock production brings to the rural communities; the environmental, habitat and landscape benefits of livestock farming.

Changes in industry practice

  Any changes in this area should clearly be made in conjunction with industry organisations. We believe that it is imperative in the light of the crisis, that there are certain changes in industry practice which are introduced as quickly as possible. We welcome the Government consultation documents on the feeding of pigswill and the introduction of 20 day standstill periods for cattle and sheep movements. MLC is responding constructively to these documents, but believes that further action can be taken, particularly in the following areas:

    —  the introduction of electronic identification for all animals (sheep as the first priority);

    —  the requirement to maintain movement records for animals held on farm;

    —  the requirement that every producer should become a member of an authenticated farm assurance scheme;

    —  tightening in the rules for the operation of auction markets; and

    —  strengthening of rules for animal transport.

  Finally, it is vital that progress is made speedily in the Government/industry discussions on the introduction of better risk management measures in the livestock industry.

Industry restructuring

  There needs to be an urgent look at the opportunities for industry restructuring. A time such as this is an ideal opportunity for speeding up supply chain improvements. These include:

    —  improved information up and down the chain;

    —  the development of complete traceability linked to better product labelling for consumers; and

    —  better industry linkages to key growth areas such as food service and ready meals.

  Such changes should also be accompanied by providing clear incentives for producers to adopt new technology which has major implications for cost structures. These include:

    —  rapid uptake of improved cattle and sheep breeding stock (including speedier implementation of the National Scrapie plan);

    —  effective benchmarking geared to improvements in eating quality; and

    —  food safety risk management measures on pig farms—geared to the reduction of salmonella incidence.

Future Action by MLC

  MLC has a key role to play in the market recovery process which should follow the end of the FMD crisis. Our approach to recovering markets after the 1996 BSE crisis, through winning consumer confidence back, proved highly successful.

  Based on our extensive consumer research, we have already proposed to Government a £25 million programme for the 2001-02 year which would be geared to:

    —  recovering the market for red meat consumption;

    —  ensuring that British farmers increase their share in this market recovery; and

    —  helping to restore recovery and confidence to the countryside in general.

  The plan also proposes a strategy for the recovery of export markets.

  MLC's own income has been drastically cut by the reduction in livestock slaughterings and it cannot fund such a programme. We believe it is in the national interest for such a market recovery programme to be executed, with benefits not just to livestock production but to the rural economy in general.

25 April 2001

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