Human Stories

Small Abattoirs are Closing Fast | Why Does That Matter?

Small abattoirs are closing across Europe, leaving local farmers and homesteads with fewer places to slaughter their animals. Discover the situation in the UK, and find out why it matters for animal welfare, food traceability and the future of local farming.

In the last 30 years, small abattoirs across the European continent have been closing down. In the UK, for example, small abattoirs have been shutting at a rate of around 10% a year.1

Usually defined as units that slaughter fewer than 5,000 animals each year, small abattoirs generally serve small farms, homesteads and rare breed farmers who cannot, or do not want to use commercial abattoirs, which, in the EU, slaughter more than 8.4 billion animals annually.2

In 2007, the UK was home to almost 100 small abattoirs, but this figure has dropped to just over 60 in 2023.3 The majority of those still open say they expect to face closure soon. A 2021 study by National Craft Butchers found that 59% of small abattoirs expect to close within the next five years without government support.4

Some government support has been forthcoming - in September 2023, the UK government unveiled a small abattoir fund worth 4.5 million EUR (£4 million) to help small abattoirs - but industry experts say the funding may be too little too late to save small abattoirs.5

Why are small abattoirs closing?

Lack of skilled workers

Abattoirs face a shortage of skilled workers primarily because the jobs are relatively low-paid, and for many, the industry simply isn’t a very attractive one to work in.6

Not only is the work physically demanding with repetitive movements and long working hours, but workers also face exposure to health hazards and the stress of killing animals.6 Threats of closure for small abattoirs compound the problem, and without enough skilled staff, abattoirs are forced to close.

A large proportion of staff in European abattoirs are cross-border or migrant workers from within and, increasingly, from outside the EU.6 In the UK, Brexit has significantly worsened the abattoir staffing situation.

No succession plan

Many small abattoir businesses in the UK are long-standing family-run businesses that have been operating for generations. Increasingly, however, young people are choosing to move to cities, and that means there is nobody left to run the business. A 2021 study by National Craft Butchers found that 56% of owners said they did not have someone to take over the business when they moved on.4

Lost revenue streams

Selling hides and skins from the animals used to be an important revenue stream for small abattoirs. Today, however, there is little demand for animal skins, and small abattoirs in the UK resort to paying to get the by-product taken to landfills or incinerated.7 Where once the abattoir made a profit from the by-product of slaughtering the animal, they now lose money, making the business less financially viable.

Increasing regulation

In the UK, small abattoirs are subject to the same regulations as large, commercial abattoirs.8 This includes having an official vet present at all times during the killing process. For small abattoir operators, paying for a vet can be a prohibitive cost given they do not share the same economies of scale as commercial slaughterhouses which can justify the additional expenses.

Abattoirs in the UK must also have CCTV, head restraints for the animals and electrical stunning equipment - expenses many cannot afford.9

Spain became the first EU Member State to have mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses in 2022.

What does this mean for animal welfare?

The closure of small abattoirs means that farmers must travel further to find an alternative, raising concerns about animal welfare that could result from a longer transportation process.10 Long journeys increase stress among animals because they are exposed to crowded conditions, noisy vehicles, vibrations, lack of food, water or space to rest, poor ventilation, heat or cold.10

“I heard a story of some sheep coming from Orkney, up in Scotland, all the way down to an abattoir in South Wales. The journey involved a boat trip as well as several hours on the road,” said Megan Perry, Head of Policy & Campaigns for the Sustainable Food Trust.

“The sheep were then sent from South Wales back up North to be processed before the meat was returned to Scotland, where it was sold. This is a crazy long chain, and from the animal welfare point of view, it is really bad.”

These experiences can cause animals to release stress hormones, resulting in weight loss and can lead animals to bruise or injure themselves as they become agitated.11 In these stressful conditions, not all of the animals will make it to the slaughterhouse and lengthy transportation to an abattoir can lead to excess animal deaths during the journey.

For example, more than 1.3 million chickens died during transportation from farm to abattoir in the UK between 2016 and 2017.12 Researchers at Michigan State University found this was due to long journeys, high temperatures and poor ventilation.13

Poor animal welfare can also mean reduced profits for the farmers, as the meat or milk produced by the animal is of a lower quality and, therefore, a lower value. But there are also other ways that farmers can end up affected by small abattoir closures.10

How do small abattoir closures affect farmers?

With a number of farmers now faced with additional costs coming with longer travel distances between the farmgate and an abattoir, the extra expense has forced a number of farmers out of business. In many cases, this extra expense at the hands of farmers can be the difference between a profit and a loss.

Anthony Dowling, a former livestock farmer in Scotland, told FoodUnfolded that he abandoned raising animals for slaughter after his closest abattoir shuttered more than 15 years ago.

“The next nearest abattoirs were south or southwest of Glasgow [63 miles from Dowling’s farm], and that was just too far away and too much hassle, so we stopped butchering. Small abattoirs were a big bonus back in the day,” he said.

Native or rare breed farmers face a similar plight as most commercial or large-scale abattoirs only cater to single species or are not equipped to slaughter rare animals (such as Longhorn Cattle, which require special facilities to fit their horns in). Most small or local abattoirs offer multi-species slaughter, which is key to keeping small, diverse farms going.4 Without small abattoirs that cater to native breeds, farmers are forced to change their businesses or cease operations.

“If there’s no nearby abattoir that can process your animals, then your business goes bust,” said Christopher Price, CEO of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Most small or local abattoirs offer multi-species slaughter, which is key to keeping small, diverse farms going.
Most small or local abattoirs offer multi-species slaughter, which is key to keeping small, diverse farms going.

Can “local” meat survive without small abattoirs?

For many farmers, small abattoirs are a key part of their ethos of producing locally grown meat. Farmers and the butchers that sell the meat want to have seen the animal on the farm and know exactly who they have been handled by before being sold. Similarly, many butchers expect to know exactly which animal they are selling.

The problem is that “most industrial abattoirs don’t give you back the carcass of your own animal. They will give you back a carcass of the same breed and rough size,” Price told FoodUnfolded. Therefore, small abattoirs catering to locally grown meat are critical to some farmers’ businesses and securing food traceability for the consumer.

There is also an increasing trend towards buying foods with a locally grown ethos, making small abattoirs even more important as demand for the local market expands.14

“For locally sourced meat to actually work and be economically viable, you need the infrastructure to support it,” Perry from the Sustainable Food Trust said. “Small abattoirs are a key part of the chain; when they close down, the whole chain collapses. Without small abattoirs, consumers will lose a lot of local and traceable meat.”

What’s the solution?

Small abattoirs must be protected if we want to improve livestock welfare at the end of their lives, increase the traceability of our food chains, and keep local farmers in business. Here’s how we can make that happen.

Regulatory changes

Cutting the red tape for small abattoirs may be one way to keep more of them afloat.

In Germany, for example, vets must be present when animals are slaughtered in mobile units.20 Vets charge per animal slaughtered, but the number of animals they can charge per day is capped. This means that large abattoirs, which can slaughter over 1,000 animals a day, have lower vet costs relative to their earnings than small abattoirs.

“Regulation should be more risk-based and proportionate. Although the standards need to be exactly the same, there should be flexibility in how those rules are applied,” Perry from the Sustainable Food Trust said.

Mobile abattoirs

Mobile abattoirs are small-scale units which can move around and slaughter onsite. They have appeared in Sweden and Latvia and are fast becoming a trend in the US.15,16,17

However, mobile abattoirs require a lot of space and water and drainage facilities.1 What’s more, they often only do the slaughtering, not the other things that need to be done, so farmers still need someone to remove the skins, as well as a butcher to carve the carcass.

“This means you need a team of butchers who invest in the units. They could then need a schedule where they regularly slaughter on different farms so it makes sense financially,” Marianne Landzettel, a food, farming and agriculture policy journalist in the UK and EU, said.

Improve Government funding schemes

The English government’s small abattoir fund is available for modernisation to improve animal welfare, increase productivity, add value to products, or add innovation and technology.18 However, grants are only available for 40% of the project, meaning abattoir owners have to put up 60% of the funding, which may be prohibitive for small businesses.21

The funding is also only available for mobile and static poultry and red meat abattoirs in England that have already been approved by the Food Standards Authority.22 Critics say this is too little and too late.

Cooperative-owned abattoirs

Until the government offers meaningful support, farmers may have to take things into their own hands. For example, cooperative-owned abattoirs involve farmers and a butcher working together to run a slaughterhouse for the benefit of the local community.

An example in Legau, Germany, was set up by several farmers. Animals are slaughtered on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and the butcher spends the rest of the week processing the meat for sale. The dual purpose of this slaughterhouse and the fact that one butcher does all the processing in one place make it financially viable for the farmers.23

This solution works so well in Germany because there used to be a network of abattoirs in every town, which can be revived. And it could work elsewhere. The Sustainable Food Trust found 64% of farmers in the UK would be interested in a cooperative-owned abattoir.19

Activists are fighting for the survival of small abattoirs across Europe. But without small abattoirs, the sight of truckloads of animals on long journeys to the slaughterhouse could become even more common.

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