Row over abattoir inspection costs
Abattoirs in Wales could close if they have to absorb £30m costs for inspecting the industry, businesses warn.
It comes as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) consults on how to pass the bill from government onto meat-cutting plants and abattoirs.
Rural businesses fear annual costs could quadruple, up from £18,000 to £80,000 in one example.
But the FSA says it shouldn't fund or subsidise the industries it regulates.
According to the Association for Independent Meat Suppliers, the FSA is trying to pass on its overheads on top of the expense of vets and meat inspectors at slaughterhouses.
The proof of that lies with the as yet unquantified or undefined costs of paying vets and inspectors to check meat in Welsh and British abattoirs.
The fears are by January 2012, amidst the current cutting of public funding, the consultation could, potentially, force some small and medium sized slaughterhouses in rural Wales to close their doors, as costs in some cases could quadruple.
Brian Evans, owner of GR Evans abattoir in Corwen, Denbighshire, feels his 70-year-old family business may be a casualty of any new costs on top of the £25m a year the industry already pays.
"At the moment we are paying about £18,000 a year for these inspections and then it will go up to nearly £80,000, which is just not feasible," he said.
"It would just be the end of a long-standing abattoir which my father started in 1938."
Control for food hygiene within the FSA hasn't been devolved, and during the past four years, even before the Comprehensive Spending Review, the FSA has cut its own budget from £91m to £56m.
What's concentrating minds at UK and Welsh government levels, is that the FSA need to cut 20% of its budget - and passing inspection costs on to the industry in what's called "full recovery cost" is one of five options on the table.
Steve Wearne, head of the FSA in Wales, said: "This was a principled decision, taken by our board back in November 2009 that the FSA as a body shouldn't fund or subsidise the industries it regulates and so we are looking to move towards full cost recovery for the official controls in abattoirs and cutting plants."
According to Wales's rural affairs minister Elin Jones - the assembly government can offer its opinion, but has no devolved powers beyond that. Any negative side effects on Welsh agriculture policies would worry her.
"There are significant potential increases and changes that they will have to shoulder and that would mean that their business becomes unviable," she said.
"It means that those slaughterhouses may disappear in Wales and that means that local producers of food who want to kill animals, process the food and sell it locally - we could lose all of that in one fell swoop if these changes happen and they are predicted to happen at this point."
The real discussion is not so much about public health, or meat hygiene - but what exactly does it cost - across all abattoirs in Britain.
Norman Bagley, of the Association for Independent Meat Suppliers, says: "The industry currently pays circa £25m towards the cost of meat inspections and what we object to mainly is that we have no problems in paying for the cost of inspections but one of the big bugbears is they are loading those costs by over 50% of their own overheads.
"We don't mind paying for inspections but we've still got a long way to go to get to the bottom of what on earth these extra 50% of costs are."
Speaking last month, rural affairs minister Elin Jones said the assembly government were making a formal response to the consultation and she would be doing her best to protect the interests of small abattoirs.
"The future of small slaughterhouses is vital to the Welsh food industry and they must stay open if we want to see food in Wales sold in farmers' markets and butchers," she said.
Ms Jones said the FSA must have "due regard" for small abbatoirs when setting charges, with nine potentially facing large increases.
The consultation is expected to end in spring 2011, before further discussions about how to implement any recommendations.