When viewed from close range, both the potential closure of the Vion pig meat processing plant at Broxburn and the forthcoming crisis meeting on milk prices are big, big events.
But from a longer-term perspective, how significant are they? With great respect to those whose jobs are on the line, are these events mere blips on an economic path or are they major turning points in the respective industries?
It is too early to pronounce any verdict, but on the other hand it is instructive to think beyond the immediate problems both provide.
One of the first articles I wrote a quarter of a century ago was on the overcapacity in the meat processing sector. Since then, every incoming president of the Scottish
Association of Meat Wholesalers has echoed that sentiment. Anyone looking at the drastic reduction in production of all three red meat species in the interim period will recognise there is spare processing capacity in Scotland.
It is a line repeated by Jim McLaren, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, and as someone who has visited every abattoir in the country in the past 12 months he should know.
Admittedly that does not answer any question on the condition of the spare processing lines, such as are they modern, are they ready to go and is the skilled manpower in place?
And it does not answer any question on supply contracts – I cannot imagine Vion handing over their existing contracts with, say, Asda to some other processor when their English pig meat factory at Malton has spare capacity.
This brings another issue: any red meat leaving the country loses the opportunity to put the “Scotch” tag on it – now you can see McLaren’s top reason for promoting that processing continues to take place in Scotland.
His second may be the loss of levy money for pigs being slaughtered outwith Scotland.
There are major questionmarks over whether the Broxburn plant can be revived. When Vion took over Grampian Country Foods, the Broxburn plant was reputed to be unprofitable.
Vion wanted a quick entry into the UK retail business and Grampian gave them that, although it surprises me that three years after their investment, they had neither sorted out the manning levels nor the reputed outdated processing lines at Broxburn.
Although some recommend it as a solution, I do not think it is the role of government to become involved in meat processing, nor to provide tax breaks, especially when other pig meat processing companies seem to be able to trade profitably.
Neither do I believe that any major retailer will step in and take over the plant. If they were so inclined, the obvious location is 200 miles north where the majority of the pigs are raised.
I believe Halls of Broxburn will slip away and in a few years people will have fond memories of the black puddings made there, but little else.
The milk crisis meeting is another kettle of fish, to mix metaphors. I have attended numerous milk protest meetings, blockades of distribution depots and even of supermarket forecourts over the years.
But because although farmers can do angry but not fighting-mad angry, many of these have been damp squibs. It is a sort of, “You go and lie down and stop the lorries going through” “No, you go and do it, I am busy watching what is going to happen” anti-climax. So I expect there will be plenty of angry words at Lanark Market today and lots of threats, but I do not expect action.
It will be a test of NFU Scotland leadership – none of the top trio has their roots in the milk sector but they will need to lead the protest, otherwise a young pretender to their throne may emerge. Remember the similar circumstances that launched the union career of Jim Walker.
If milk producers are really, really angry and really, really mean it, the best way they could show their anger would be to withhold their supplies. Not for a day, but for an unspecified time.
It’s easy for me to say, I know, because I will not be watching money being poured away with the milk. And yes, if I was a dairy farmer with debt round my neck I would find it difficult to do this.
But such an action would grab the attention of politicians and, if handled well, could get the sympathy of the public and that might help form a turning point in the milk industry.
It might happen – but I am not convinced it will.
Meat Trade News Daily Supporting British Pig Farmers
Source: the scotsman
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