Mobile abattoirs - viability and sustainability: report

The findings of a study carried out to determine whether or not mobile slaughter units (MSUs) would be viable in Scotland.

4.0 Mobile Abattoir Case Studies

Box 2. Key Findings from Mobile Abattoir Case Studies Reviewed

There is limited information available to learn from the historic UK examples, however the key points to be considered are:

  • Historically, the examples identified indicate MSU projects being taken forward through the energy of a motivated individual, rather than establishing farmer buy-in at the outset.
  • Disease outbreaks are claimed to have had a significant impact on historic MSUs (and the wider meat industry) and the robustness of the operating systems for MSUs would need to take this potential into account.

Key points in terms of the international examples considered include:

  • MSUs investigated have been financed through a combination of public and private investment:
  • The establishment of “docking stations” and the value generated from retail cuts were viewed by many consultees as essential ingredients for the potential success of an MSU.

The capital costs of MSUs vary considerably from approximately US $100,000 (£78,000 Pounds Sterling) for the Lopez Island MSU, up to £1 million (Pounds Sterling) for the MSU (two trailers) operated by Hälsingestintan in Sweden.

There appears to be an interest (politically and socially) around higher welfare meat with known provenance, and this appears to be generating an interest in MSUs, and notably the political context in France and Germany is suggesting some level of support in this direction.

4.1 Overview

The results of desk-based reviews and stakeholder engagement are provided in this section, with considerations made in terms of:

  • Scotland and rest of the UK (rUK) case studies.
  • International case studies.

It was understood that Scottish/rUK case studies may be significantly more difficult to source information on, however, where available it may allow lessons to be learned and further opportunities to be developed and considered. A review of international MSU examples was carried out to gain a thorough understanding of the business models, capacities and constraints that overseas mobile abattoirs work in, including an understanding of the impact that they may have on existing abattoirs and supply chains.

The following sections summarise the information gathered for the different case studies, with the tables in Appendix 1 providing more in depth details.

4.2 Scotland and rUK Case Studies

4.2.1 Historic Context

It had been reported that there were two MSUs historically operational within the rUK in the 1990s, however the desktop review was unable to identify any significant information online regarding these with the detailed information obtained coming from conversations with the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA)[7]. It was also believed that there may have been a MSU operating for a short time on the Isle of Skye, also in the 1990s and a brief mention of this along with the other two is provided below:

a) Brecon Beacons MSU: The MSU was designed and operated by Hugh Fullerton Smith (HFS), who then went on to set up mobile abattoirs in northern Scandinavian countries, Canada and Mongolia. The Brecon Beacons abattoir was initially set up to process deer and sheep. Although it was mobile, it was mainly based in one location. It was believed that the capital costs for the MSU were EU funded. One of the key issues associated with its demise, was thought to be due to the historic interpretation of the regulations. Whilst some farmers were potentially interested in using disused pens as lairage, at the time the interpretation of the legislation was that if the pen was used as a lairage, it then couldn’t be used as a pen for a full year. This interpretation led to fewer farmers being interested. The second issue, was associated with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and is discussed in more detail below.

b) M4 Corridor MSU: The second “mobile” abattoir was planned to operate along the M4 corridor, with a base in Wiltshire. There was one key person driving the project forward, and although there was support for the mobile abattoir, this did not translate into investment. The mobile abattoir had planned to visit 4 sites/ docking points, however when planning applications were put in for the sites, there were numerous objections, for example, on one site, there was a rare orchid found, which meant that the site couldn’t be used (and other similar issues). Again, similar to the Brecon Beacons example, the interpretation of being unable to use land that had been used as lairage for one year was a significant issue[8]. As a result of the above, the abattoir was fully licenced, but static. It was indicated that the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak ultimately led to the demise of both of the “mobile” abattoirs. The outbreak caused the government to review the slaughter capability of the UK and the construction of 3 or 4 multi-species abattoirs was funded to re-address a lack of regional capacity. These were modern buildings, that the “mobile” abattoirs could not compete against.

c) Isle of Skye MSU: The desk-top review also indicated that there was one temporary MSU operating in Skye[9]

“While there was a trial operation of a mobile slaughtering facility on Skye in September 1993, no formal application for the appropriate licence under the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1992 has been submitted for such a facility.”[10]

Whilst there is no further information available about the MSU on-line. Anecdotal information indicates that the MSU was based in England (location unknown, but likely to be one of the above MSUs) and would travel to Skye for approximately one week at a time. The slaughterhouse in Skye had just closed, and the MSU was part-funded by an EU scheme to assess its viability (operating in this context/type of location). It is understood that this continued for approximately 2 years, however demand for the MSU reduced, partly due to cost and partly because there were not many farmers finishing livestock on Skye at the time. The MSU was based at the auction mart in Portree, with farmers bringing stock to it. The waste products were either buried on-site or tipped at the adjacent landfill[11].

4.2.2 Current Situation

The review indicated there were plans to build an MSU in England involving the Purdis Group, who were contacted at different times aross 2019 to discuss their approach and to compare this with the evolving picture in Scotland (the development of ideas generated by this study). At the time of these discussions the Purdis Group were in the process of designing an MSU to be operational by March 2020 (comment made is that the timeframe is set by the FSA). There is a team involving an architect, engineer, farmer, consultant, etc currently developing the purpose built design. With the design scheduled for completion in 2019 the timeframe for the build is then another 6 months. Discussions have indicated that the aim is to operate the MSU as a co-operative, with a couple of potential operating models currently on the table. The simplest involves the MSU providing the slaughter, but it is hoped that ultimately the MSU will slaughter 2 days per week and process 3 days per week, with the following operational features:

  • Farmers will be provided with the following options i) slaughter, chill and butcher, ii) slaughter, farmer chills, MSU returns 3 weeks later to butcher, iii) MSU just slaughters. It was commented that the value was in the butchery, making the MSU economically viable.
  • The MSU project is being primarily driven by one farmer, with Purdis a land agent for this farmer. There is interest amongst other farmers who have completed surveys, however, arrangements are not currently finalised. It should be noted that funding has not been secured for the MSU, although the Purdis Group are in discussions with DEFRA.
  • The key issues and costs were (at the start of this MSU Feasibility Study) considered by the Purvis Group to be: i) waste management, ii) labour, iii) vet costs. To overcome with the waste management issue, the farmer will be responsible for the waste (including costs), which will be stored at the farm, until a renderer collects. To overcome the additional costs of running the MSU it will target farmers that are looking to sell within a farm shop, and are therefore able to command a premium (hoped that this will offset higher slaughter charges).

4.3 International Case Studies

4.3.1 Overview

A review of international MSU examples was carried out to gain a thorough understanding of the business models, capacities and constraints that overseas mobile abattoirs work to, including an understanding of the impact that they may have on existing abattoirs and supply chains. The countries and examples considered are summarised below:

  • Sweden (Hälsingestintan)
  • Norway (MobilSlakt)
  • France (SAS Boeuf and Hälsingestintan)
  • Germany
  • The Netherlands
  • African Countries, Namibia ( MeatCo)
  • Yukon, Canada
  • New South Wales, Australia (Provenir)
  • New Zealand
  • USA (The Island Grown Farmer Cooperative

The above have been explored through a combination of desktop review and stakeholder engagement, with brief summaries provided for each in the following sections (more detailed information is available in Appendix 1). A final miscellaneous section provides additional information from a MSU operator and designer with significant international experience.

4.3.2 Sweden (Hälsingestintan)

The Swedish MSU is widely reported to be the first in Europe for fully grown cattle, and came into operation in 2015[12]. The concept was devised by Britt Marie Stegg (engaged with during the project), in response to the horse meat exposé/”scandal” at the turn of the decade. The mobile abattoir complies with European regulations and appears to have operated within a similar context to a potential Scottish one. A key focus was the production of “ethical meat”. The company appeals to a demographic that are keen to know the provenance of their meat and are willing to pay a premium. It is also worth noting, that the founder has also been involved in setting up MSUs in France and Australia and it is understood (anecdotal information) that the Hälsingestintan MSU was being operated in a partnership with a supermarket in its latter months of operation.

Hälsingestintan were contacted in late June 2019, and they reported that the MSU had just been declared bankrupt. It was commented that many of the issues that led to its demise could have been overcome and that MSUs do have the potential to be viable. The key lessons learned are summarised below:

  • Planning: The MSU did not forward plan e.g. they did not know where they were going to be from one week to the next. This was a key issue that was being worked on at the time of closure.
  • Costs: There were no economies of scale; the MSU could be at 3 places in one week, moving from farm to farm, covering significant distances.
  • “Incorrect products”: Young bulls were being sourced, however young bulls do not provide good marbling or pH. The MSU needed to focus on sourcing steers and heifers for a quality product – a high quality product was required in order to charge a premium price, in order to counteract the higher slaughter costs.

Hälsingestintan felt that key to the success of a unit going forward would be to have a docking station approach, with the MSU remaining at the same location for 2 or 3 months, and with farmers hauling their own livestock. Additional points to note include:

  • Insufficient chill capacity.
  • High operating costs (in comparison to a static abattoir).
  • Insufficient waste storage capacity (leading to mixing of different waste categories.

The MSU was privately funded, with no public subsidies provided and therefore it competed alongside conventional abattoirs. The MSU had a small number of committed farmers (25) who were reported to be very happy with the system, but this was a very small number (e.g. relative to the number of farmers utilising existing abattoirs).

4.3.3 Norway (Mobil Slakt)

Mobil Slakt were operating for circa 10 years (2006 to 2015), before stopping (the owner has now retired), but it was commented during the consultation that the aim is to have the service restarted, ideally in Norway. The shareholders have given the unit to the consultee/owner, who is tasked with finding another buyer. The MSU was not built to process adult cattle, and focussed very much on sheep, authorised initially to slaughter animals corresponding to 250 tonnes of meat per year, in two specified regions. It slaughtered for 32 days per annum and it was considered that it needed a minimum of 100 slaughter days for the MSU to be financially viable - this number was not reached. It also only slaughtered in winter and autumn, with no service in summer. The objective was very much related to animal welfare concerns, minimising the distances moved prior to slaughter.

Regulatory and waste management compliance was discussed and these were considered by Mobil Slakt as having relatively small impacts. Waste was left in suitable storage containers at farms, with paperwork forwarded to Mobil Slakt for admininstrative purposes once the waste was processed by an authorised facility. The costs associated with this were not considered to be an issue. There are YouTube videos of the above operation, which can be accessed at:

4.3.4 France (SAS Boeuf and Hälsingestintan)

SAS Boeuf entered into a seven-year agreement with Hälsingestintan in 2017 to introduce a mobile abattoir to France.

It is understood that there was a decree published on 16 April 2019 in France, which authorises the implementation of mobile slaughterhouse projects. This is believed to be an experimental measure over a 4-year period and it was stated that the primary objective of the decree is to reduce the stress and animal suffering associated with transport conditions.[13] The underlying political context in France may influence the development of MSUs in the country, where it is reported that they are gaining in popularity[14]. There is limited information available on-line regarding this initial trial period.

4.3.5 Germany

In Germany there is a pilot project, announced by the German Minster of Agriculture (Peter Hauk), where the model being supported involves the MSU being part of a licensed, fixed abattoir. The animals are stunned and bled in the MSU (the MSE-200A) with the carcases then taken to the abattoir for post-mortem inspection and processing – the objective being to provide local meat, provenance and “artisanal meat processing”. The minister has commented (November 2018[15]):

“The models of mobile slaughter units, which are now being developed in Baden-Württemberg and are already being piloted, are steps in the right direction towards maximum animal welfare and transparency in meat production. Whether the mobile slaughtering process can prevail as a successful model, will also depend on the willingness of consumers to reward this when purchasing a higher price, "said Minister Hauk. In order to successfully implement the model, a functioning network of small and regional slaughterhouses is also needed.”

It should also be noted that there has been an announcement in Austria of an approach to supporting MSUs which has similarities to Germany, with the Federal Republic of Vorarlberg[16] stating in May 2019:

“…initiatives have worked out specific details for the approval of "mobile slaughter facilities", which have now been adopted by the relevant Ministry of Social Affairs in a decree that is binding for all of Austria.”

Figure 2. IG Slaughter with Care MSU
Figure 2. IG Slaughter with Care MSU

4.3.6 Netherlands

The Netherlands are currently trialling a system of mobile killing units, in Dutch, Mobiele Dodings Units (MDUs) which are owned by existing, fixed slaughterhouses. It is reported that there is increased interest amongst slaughterhouse to purchase such units, but unlike the other examples identified in this case studies section, the Dutch system is designed to slaughter casualty animals (predominantly dairy). Amongst the conditions that have be met are:

  • The animal has to be healthy, within a normal temperature range (38-390C).
  • FCI (VKI = Veterinary Chain Information = information about health and veterinary treatments, withdrawal periods etc), reason why the animal is not suitable for transport, Identification and Registration (I&R).
  • A Vet and MDU visit the farm where the OV conducts a clinical investigation incl. rectal temperature, ID checks and FCI.
  • If permission to slaughter is granted, the animal is led into the MSU (equipped with lift), shot and bled. If walking into the MSU is not possible, the animal is shot outside the unit and winched into the MSU and bled (all bleeding occurs within the unit, where the blood is collected).

The exterior of the vehicle is cleaned and disinfected after each visit. After unloading at the slaughterhouse, full cleansing and disinfection is carried out. It is stated that there will be some risk that the farmers accept (if they are not the first farm visited).

The capacity is up to 6 animals and the aim is that the unit should be at the static slaughterhouse within 2 hours of the first animal being shot. It has not been possible to obtain exact costs to utilise the service, but they are reported to be “high”, despite this, it has been stated that it is a method growing in popularity because of improved animal welfare outcomes, plus farmers re-coup some of the costs for their slaughtered animal (indicated to be in the region of about €50-150). The costs are reported to be €300,000 (Euros) for two second hand trucks rebuilt to a MDU specification, and two new trailers (space for 2 animals) built by Böckmann, Lastrup Germany ( It has also not been possible to determine if there are impacts on existing abattoirs. However, with slaughterhouses themselves investing in the units it is anticipated that these will support existing operations rather than compete with them.

4.3.7 African Countries

A well reported “mobile” abattoir is operated by MeatCo, and is based at the Angelina Matumbo Rebebe Quarantine camp, in Kavango. MSU operations commenced in 2016, and it is reported that prior to the siting of the MSU some farmers within the region had no access to slaughter for two/three years due to the closure of the local abattoir (therefore reportedly receiving no income and resulting in overgrazed land). However, the MSU is now permanently sited within a centralised location in the region, with farmers bringing cattle to it, rather than the MSU travelling from farm to farm. It is therefore an MSU in name only, because it appears to operate as a static small/ micro abattoir for the community. In addition, the regulations surrounding the MSU appear to be less stringent, with it reportedly able to operate during FMD moratoriums (when other abattoirs are at a stand-still). Subsequent discussions with ABA Chem (Abattoir manufacturer and supplier) have indicated that MSUs are growing in popularity in Africa, particularly for sheep and goats, due to high losses during transport in heat. However, there were a number of differences identified, in Africa, meat is generally sold “fresh” i.e not chilled, in addition the general meat hygiene and animal welfare differences were noted.

Given the differences in the geography, economics and legislation surrounding the African examples, there are no plans to gain additional information, and its relevance to Scotland appear to be limited.

4.3.8 Yukon, Canada

The MSU was established in Yukon in 2006, following on from a government commissioned feasibility study to find out what was limiting the development of the livestock industry. At the time there were no slaughter facilities at all within the state, therefore farmers were slaughtering their own livestock and selling on to friends and family (no retail permitted, because not inspected). Within the state farms were very small and geographically sparse and the feasibility report concluded that farmers needed a slaughter unit, and it was felt that a mobile one would best suit their needs because farms are spread out over significant distances, and most farmers did not have a trailer to bring their livestock to a static abattoir.

The drivers to set up the MSU were part of a movement to:

“increase the amount of commercially available, locally grown, government inspected beef, bison, pork and elk for sale in Yukon”.

The federal government was keen to grow the industry and support retail opportunities. Therefore a federal funding programme (Yukon state government) was utilised to fund the capital costs of the MSU, operated on behalf of the government by a private company, through a tender/procurement process. The original business plan saw the MSU requiring public subsidies for the initial 5 years, however, this evolved, and at one point (in 2012/ 2013), the state subsidised free slaughter for farmers for one year, in order to encourage use of the MSU[17]. The unit can process up to 8 bison, beef cattle or elk, 15 hogs, or 20 smaller animals such as sheep or goats. However, although demand is increasing, it is not working at full capacity, and in 2016 processed 188 animals (108 pigs)[18]. Discussions with the operator and government have indicated that at the time of construction there were no formal slaughter provisions available to farmers. One additional static abattoir has since opened up, however this abattoir tends to service the larger farmers, and it is reported that the two facilities complement each other rather than compete. The MSU operator provided the numbers of animals slaughtered since 2014. There is a steady increase, however this is not sufficient to meet the running costs and the MSU remains reliant upon public subsidies.

Table 2. Summary of MSU annual throughput
Year Number of animals slaughtered
2014 87
2015 102
2016 188
2017 215
2018 253

The MSU has a minimum threshold for slaughter, this being either 4 “smalls” or 2 “bigs”. They process the majority of their pigs in September and the majority of their beef in October. The MSU can only operate above -10℃, which means that it cannot operate for roughly seven months of the year. In order to fulfil the regulatory requirements, the farm provides the toilet facilities, a flat area of ground. The farmer is required to slaughter the livestock (shoots and bleeds the animal) with the offal and waste left at the farm. In terms of managing waste, the regulations state that Specified Risk Material (Category 1) cannot be buried at the farm, however lower risk material can be. Farmers store the SRM and arrange for a collection when there is a sufficient amount. The CFIA (the environment agency) check that the amount being stored matches the number of animals slaughtered. Both the operator and state official engaged with were very positive about their MSU, with the operator stating that the system:

“Works really well for the farmers/animal welfare and particularly for elk. For an MSU to be operated as a private enterprise, best to be associated with a cut and wrap facility”.

The government official stated that he believes that the MSU is a huge benefit to the industry and would want to keep it, however there would also need to be considerations about whether the government would want to keep subsidising this in the future. The MSU is fully mobile and compliant with legislation which from a snapshot review appears to be of a similar standard to Scotland. For information, a copy of the MSU operating procedures[19] and application form[20] is available online at the time of writing.

4.3.9 The United States of America

The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) supports small meat processors, producers, buyers, regulators, and others by coordinating, distributing, and developing information and resources to improve access to processing infrastructure and the long-term stability of this sector. The website has a range of case studies, costs and regulatory guidance available on MSUs. The Director was contacted to obtain an overview of the MSU sector in the USA. The NMPAN stated that although there has been a significant number of operational MSUs in the States, the vast majority of these are now out of business (90%), with only 8 – 10 remaining. They have found that MSUs tend to be more viable when they are operated by a private company and operate on an island (limited competition). There is one particularly successful example - Lopez Islands, San Juan County, which is written up in more detail in Appendix 1.

The NMPAN believe that it is better to focus on the existing static infrastructure, they are currently looking to implement grant funding (competitive) for food processors, to help improve existing static infrastructure to better serve local farmers. The grant funding scheme will be modeled on one that is currently in place in Michigan. Specifically in relation to MSU, the key constraints were considered to be:

  • Economic constraints due to limited throughput, plus additional extras such as (i) a commercial truck driver (not typically involved in the slaughter), (ii) insurance costs, (iii) overheads from running a truck, (iv) haulage to butchers.
  • Practical constraints: specifically mentioned were difficulties obtaining suitable locations to site the MSU e.g. farm access in the USA is typically poor, water not tested, therefore not considered to be potable, etc.
  • Regulatory constraints specifically “Pen and Shoot Design”: In the USA – if you do not shoot and kill the animal on the first shot, you are closed down for a couple of days/weeks until an approved alternative procedure is in place. An example was provided of where one MSU owner opted to make his MSU stationary, so that he could get the right pen and shoot design. In addition, it was felt that making adjustments to existing static abattoirs e.g. a new shoot box to ensure that the kill was right everytime would improve animal welfare, rather than investing in MSUs which might be limited by their location.
  • Throughput constraints: will not achieve the same throughputs as large, static infrastructure - an example was provided of one of the members who stated that he needed to process 10 head of cattle to break even, however it is a struggle to get through 10 cattle per day, and has never made a profit.
  • Species constraints: not suitable for large, horned animals.

The concept of “docking stations” located at existing infrastructure was discussed and it was felt that this could be potentially viable and was of interest. The consultee was not able to provide an example of an MSU and docking station system in the USA. Whilst indicating that MSUs were positive from an animal welfare and local farmers’ point of view, from a business perspective the organisation considered that it was difficult to make an MSU economically viable, particularly if servicing the needs of “hobby farmers”.

4.3.10 Australia

There is reported to be a growing number of consumers interested in provenance and animal welfare in Australia, and the livestock industry has come under scrutiny recently (2018) due to the deaths of significant numbers of animals during live export of sheep from Perth (Western Australia ) to the middle-east. Five mobile abattoir units are planned for production in Perth, with one expected to be based in Western Australia's south-west. There is some discussion within industry whether the strict regulations concerning animals and transport will make the units cost prohibitive[21]. Regulatory requirements are commonly cited in on-line articles as major inhibitors to mobile abattoirs within Australia, different states have different rules, with some states e.g. Northern Territory and Victoria prohibiting mobile abattoirs (there are plans to change this in Victoria). The following have been stated as important considerations, especially for mobile abattoirs in Australia: multiple layers of regulations covering food safety, water quality, environmental planning, waste disposal, workplace health and safety, zoning issues and cattle traceability (the NLIS).

Provenir, a private agri-tech company, has recently designed an MSU, operating within New South Wales, since June 20th 2019. It has been reported that Hälsingestintan have “mentored” Provenir through the process. In terms of funding, it has also been reported that the Provenir MSU has been funded by a variety of different sources, which has included private investment, crowdfunding, grants, etc. The breakdown of the different streams is commercially confidential.

4.3.11 New Zealand

Netherby Butchers based in Ashburton, New Zealand, provide farmers with an “on-location slaughter” using a Mobile Abattoir or “off-site abattoir processing”. No direct engagement resulted from efforts to contact the company and the information provided here and in the appendix is therefore based on desk-based research. The Netherby Butchers MSU can be used for cattle, pork or lamb and famers within pre-defined areas can complete an order form, indicating how many animals they have. Netherby Butchers then contact the farmers when the MSU is in their area. The MSU then slaughters on-location and transports back to the butchery chiller for further processing. Offal removal can be arranged at an extra cost, or the farmer has the option of arranging disposal.

4.3.12 Miscellaneous International Experience

This section summarises discussions with Mr Fullerton Smith, who has been heavily involved in the design and operation of MSUs internationally and who provided a number of comments regarding their build, approval and operation:

  • Commented that he had MAFF-approved[22] docking stations.
  • Developed a system for some animals, which involved slaughtering one day, vacuum packing the next day.
  • Built Swedish mobile abattoirs for the far north, freezing conditions (other desk-based work has indicated that these were 32 tonnes in weight, built into a trailer 15.5 metres long, 3.5 metres wide, expanded hydraulically on site).
  • The cost of the Swedish unit was £680,000 Pounds Sterling (January 1998).
  • Had a contract with the Mongolian government, for 8.5 million Euros, which the bank pulled out of (round the time of the financial crash).
  • Commented that some people believe that MSUs can go around individual farms – the consultee’s view is that this is a non-starter, and that it needs to the hub approach, with docking stations.
  • Has developed mobile abattoirs for specific types of animals, to reflect their characteristics, build etc. For example:
    • Bison, massive, one-tonne animals which required horizontal skinning
    • High Mongolian horses - overhead rails much higher than for cattle
  • Mentioned how locally transported animals, with lower levels of stress have reduced levels of pH, which increases shelf life – a good reason for MSUs.



Back to top