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Muckspreader/21 September 2004 / Private Eye


            A recent Channel Four Dispatches programme unwittingly illustrated the old truth that, if a government issues a stupid law which prevents honest folk from making a living, sooner or later somebody will try to find a way round it.  ... Dispatches sought to expose Britain’s fast-growing ‘black economy’ in selling illegally slaughtered meat to butchers and restaurants. Not explained was why such a trade should suddenly have sprung up in recent years.


The reason lies in the insane policy pursued since 1990 by Maff/Defra which has resulted in the closure of three quarters of Britain’s slaughterhouses. The excuse claimed by British ministers, from John Selwyn Gummer onwards, was that they were implementing EC hygiene rules. It is true that part of the problem was the ludicrously cackhanded and costly way in which they agreed to impose the continental system of meat inspection by vets on top of the traditional British system relying on meat inspectors. But equally damaging was that, in the name of the ‘single market’, the EC wanted to squeeze all abattoirs into the same regulatory straitjacket. In the name of ‘EC export rules’, it forced hundreds of smaller slaughterhouses to adopt ‘structural standards’ originally designed to apply only to the huge ‘factory abattoirs’ which mass-produce meat for supermarkets and burger bars.


            The result, inevitably, was that hundreds of firms were forced to close, because they could not afford the vast sums needed to comply with regulations totally inappropriate to their type of business, and which had nothing whatever to do with promoting safer meat.  This left large areas of Britain without a slaughterhouse, creating massive difficulties for farmers and butchers (plus serious animal welfare problems into the bargain).Hence the growth in recent years of the new ‘black economy’ in illegally slaughtered meat, so gleefully exposed by Dispatches without giving the background. It was much more fun just to ladle blame onto the butchers and farmers behind the ‘racket’, without explaining that this is the sort of thing which inevitably happens when governments issue daft, unnecessary laws.


But now there is a further twist to the story. Up to now the only partial exemption from the EC rules has been for tiny ‘low throughput’ abattoirs, serving local farmers and butchers (incidentally producing a good deal of Britain’s highest-quality meat, much slavered over by professional ‘foodies’). As late as 1999, according to the great Lord Whitty, 190 ‘low throughput’ red-meat slaughterhouses had somehow managed to survive in England, although by 2003 this figure had fallen to 141. But now the European Commission has ruled that this is a scandal which must be brought to an end. The ‘low throughput’ exemption is to be abolished. This means that any small local slaughterhouses still in business will have to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds to put them on a par with the largest industrial abattoirs (most of which received huge sums of public money in the 1980s to bring them up to ‘EC export standard’). Since there is no way these tiny businesses can afford such astronomic sums, it looks as though, within two years, all the remaining tiny local abattoirs will have to close their doors. Brussels and Defra will at last have achieved their goal. Some of the best-quality meat still on the market will no longer be there to buy. And the only people rejoicing will be the supermarkets, who will have knocked out yet another tranche of their smaller competitors; and of course the regulators, who blindly derive their income from dreaming up and enforcing bureaucratic edicts which have ever less connection to the real world in which the rest of us have to live.