CRIPPLING meat hygiene inspection charges at abattoirs may be cut dramatically.

There are plans for small and medium processing plants to pay per head of livestock rather than by the hour as at present.

On Wednesday Mr Joe Simpson, of Simpsons of Cockfield, which has a small abattoir said: "I welcome this change absolutely." He pointed out, however, that from April 1 abattoirs would have to have a vet present for 100pc of the time rather than 50pc at present. Owing to the shortage of vets, he does not believe abattoirs which have already closed down will re-open.

From April 2, pending parliamentary approval, inspection costs at a small abattoir handling 100 animals a year should fall from £3,500 to just £200. A medium-sized plant handling 16,300 animals a year would expect a cut from £107,200 to £49,200.

Larger abattoirs will continue to pay an hourly charge as that will be cheaper than headage.

The National Beef Association has asked MAFF to help organise a national committee to fix weekly prime cattle prices.

With auction markets temporarily suspended, there is no transparent mechanism for determining the real value of slaughter cattle.

Mr Keith Redpath, NBA vice-chairman, said MLC price reporting information was a week late and set out a misleading all-Britain average which included "every carcass grade from Holstein to Belgian Blue and a liquorice allsorts of steers, heifers and bulls".

The NBA says there is still a wide variation in price across England, Scotland and Wales and equally big differences between prices offered by medium-sized abattoirs looking for home-killed cattle for independent butchers and larger abattoirs putting imported beef for major supermarkets through their cutting rooms.

Mr Redpath said finishers should ignore the MLC's 165p average and make the real point of comparison the price paid for standard R4L carcases cut to the new dressing specification.

He would also like prices paid by individual abattoirs to be published weekly.

"We think the government should encourage the re-instatement of as much price transparency as possible so we would welcome a national price-fixing committee,"said Mr Redpath.

l The Pig Veterinary Society's says vaccination is neither effective nor approriate but it wants a total reappraisal of swill feeding, plus limits on the number of moves made by cattle and sheep within a set period, and a complete review of livestock markets.

If swill feeding continues, the PVA says the way it is licensed and policed must be urgently reviewed.

Mr Mark White, the PVA senior vice-president, said stricter movement controls, such as were applied to pigs after swine vesicular disease outbreaks in the early 70s, would have prevented the dramatic spread of the disease.

He also said selling through livestock markets was "a wonderful way of mixing animals and disseminating infections".