Trade fears over planned five-day work stoppage

The country's biggest abattoir owners organisation is warning that meat supplies, jobs and the future of some plants may be at risk if a proposed five day strike by meat inspectors goes ahead next week.

A one day stoppage earlier this week had a varying impact around the country.

The British Meat Processors Association said this week that the one day strike caused some disruption but that a proposed five day strike due to start next Monday could be much more serious.

Meat inspectors are taking part in nationwide action by public sector workers protesting over changes to pensions. Tuesday's industrial action was described by some sources as the biggest concerted movement by workers since the 1926 General Strike.

The Meat Hygiene Service said on Tuesday that 39 of 380 British slaughterhouses had closed for the day, 22 operated at reduced capacity, 28 had postponed slaughterings, and 84 did not slaughter on a Tuesday anyway. The majority, 207, had run normally. Of 1,542 staff 596 went on strike for the day, 308 were absent for other reasons and 638 worked normally.

"We have probably done about as well as we could have anticipated" said spokesman Richard Billinge.

He warned, however, that it will be "a completely different ball game" if the five day strike happens, with the possibility of some small plants reliant on a single large contract closing. "We've told our members that if some plants go under that would have an impact on meat inspection jobs."

Peter Scott of the BMPA said that the one day stoppage had been scattered. "There's a greater level of militancy in Wales, the North West and Scotland" he said. "There will be increasing militancy as we move towards a five-day strike."

While some plants did not work others operated at reduced production levels or reduced speed because substitute inspectors brought in to help out were unfamiliar with the surroundings they were working in.

Mr Scott said it would be possible for most plants to catch up lost production from a one day stoppage but that the situation would be much more difficult if a five day strike went ahead. He claimed there was strong union pressure to extend next week's action to the weekend making a seven day stoppage possible. "Plants would work over the weekend to catch up. In fact they'd do anything to keep the nation fed.

"Our customers are complaining about disruption of deliveries but if the next strike goes ahead they'll be lucky to get anything."

Storage of meat as it built up while awaiting inspection was a major problem. Contingency plans had been discussed between Defra and the Meat Hygiene Service, said Mr Scott. Bringing in additional contract vets had been ruled out by the MHS, he understood, "as it was tantamount to strike breaking."

A five or seven day strike will also have animal welfare repurcussions. The priority for keeping plants operating during any extended industrial action is likely to be poultry plants first, then pig plants then three species plants.

The MHS operational workforce consists of around 2,000 full-time, casual and contracted staff in the 'front-line' meat inspection teams located in approved fresh meat premises throughout Britain. In addition, the MHS employs around 200 administrative and managerial staff at its headquarters in York and its five regional offices.

The inspection teams within plants will normally include an Official Veterinary Surgeon (OVS), a Senior Meat Hygiene Inspector (SMHI) or Senior Poultry Meat Inspector (SPMI), a number of Meat Hygiene Inspectors (MHIs) or Poultry Meat Inspectors (PMIs), and, at beef and/or sheep plants, Meat Technicians (MTs).

The number of inspectors depends on the size of the plant, the volume/speed of production and the complexity of its operation. These staff are supported by Regional Veterinary Advisers (RVAs) and Area Managers (AMs)

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