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Scotch Beef and the Aberdeen Slaughter-Houses
From our Special Sanitary Commissioner

From the Lancet, December 20, 1902

Aberdeen is the principal centre for the Scotch beef trade and a great part of the Scotch beef sold at Smithfield to the London butchers comes from Aberdeen. Therefore the manner in which cattle are slaughtered and meat is inspected at Aberdeen is a matter of importance not only to the inhabitants of that town but also to the consumers of Scotch beef who live in London and elsewhere. Considering that there is thus a double responsibility weighing on those who control the meat trade of Aberdeen it was to be expected that special attention would be devoted to this matter. At first it would seem as if the local authorities had realised that they had special duties to perform, for so far back as 32 years ago the town council bought some land for the purpose of erecting a model public slaughter-house. In 1870 the need of such institutions was not so fully appreciated as it is to-day, and by its action at that date the town of Aberdeen placed itself well in the vanguard of progress. But what can be said now when it is generally known that though the land has been at the disposal of the town council for 32 years nothing has been done except to allow difficulties and obstacles to accumulate? When purchased the site situated in the Kittybrewster district, now known as the Central Park site, was well away from the town in an uninhabited open country. No one would have complained if a public slaughter-house had been built there at that time. But since then the population of Aberdeen has increased and to meet the growing demand for house accommodation some fairly good houses have been built on the Clifton-road near to the site selected for the slaughter-house. There is also a school near at hand frequented by some 1200 pupils, as well as a park where football and other games are played. In a word, a residential suburb is growing up and the owners of land and houses in this district are bitterly opposed to the proposal that the original idea of building an abattoir there should be carried out. On the one side, the land and house owners, it is urged, knew all along that the site was reserved for this purpose, and, on the other, the house owners retort that as the scheme had been abandoned for so long they were justified in concluding that it would never be carried out.

It does, indeed, seem strange that a project which was partially executed should have remained in suspense for more than 30 years. One explanation is that in Aberdeen there is a survival of the old guilds of the Middle Ages. Among these guilds the Fleshers’ Incorporation is a powerful institution. All the master butchers belong to this guild and they agreed to construct a large slaughter-house for their joint use. Consequently there are not so many small slaughterhouses at Aberdeen as might otherwise have been the case. There are only seven small private slaughter-houses and three of considerable size where several butchers are accommodated on the same premises. The large slaughterhouse belonging to the Fleshers’ Incorporation brings in some profit after the working expenses have been paid and this is employed in support of a widows’ fund instituted by the guild. But if a corporation slaughter-house is built and consequently all the private slaughter-houses are closed the Fleshers’ Incorporation would lose a source of income which has served a very laudable purpose. This is a grievance which appeals to others than the members of the trade. Besides, the Fleshers’ Incorporation is associated with the other trades that are also incorporated, and together they possess a hall near Union Bridge where they hold meetings, and have dinners and other gatherings. Thus, if one trade is assailed it can command the influence of other trades to help in defending its particular interests. Consequently, whenever an effort was made to move in the matter of the public slaughterhouse all manner of difficulties were raised and opposition was systematically offered so that these projects were defeated time after time. Year after year the medical officer of health and many other competent authorities on questions of hygiene have urged the need of a public slaughter-house, yet nothing was done. In his annual report for the year 1900 Dr. Matthew Hay, the medical officer of health, says it is obvious that “the arrangements for slaughtering and for inspection in Aberdeen are, to put it plainly, disgracefully out of date and unsatisfactory and that the one remedy is centralised slaughtering, with complete and systematic inspection, as is now the practice in almost every town of importance and even in many towns with not a fourth part of the slaughtering done in Aberdeen.” In his report for the year 1901 Dr. Hay says: “A public slaughter-house is the most pressing sanitary requirement of the city and its absence is the chief defect in our sanitary administration as compared with that of the principal towns of the kingdom.”

At last the town council has revived the old scheme. The borough surveyor was called upon to draw up a plan for building a corporation slaughter-house on the Central Park site. This site consists of a part of the ground acquired by the Police Commissioners in 1870 for the erection of a public slaughter-house for the city. The plan has been completed and exclusive of a hide market, offices, and workmen’s cottages, the slaughter-house, it is estimated, will cost £22,000. Therefore the town council was called upon to approve this scheme and to raise a loan of £30,000 to carry it out. Deputations, protests, and eloquent speeches in opposition were, as on previous occasions, forthcoming, but this time the opposition was defeated and last October the town council approved in a general sense of the proposal; but it was carried by only 16 votes against 12 for one amendment and 2 votes for another antagonistic amendment. Therefore the advantage gained does not rest on a very solid basis and there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. In these circumstances it is necessary to show the imperative need of the proposed reform and this cannot be better demonstrated than by visiting the slaughter-houses actually in existence.

The most important of these is that of the Fleshers’ Incorporation. This is situated in a street, and is overlooked by inhabited houses, not far from the centre of the town and in a poor, populous district. Whatever objections may be raised to the site for the proposed municipal slaughter-house similar objections apply with greater force to this and other private slaughter-houses, for they are surrounded by a much larger number of inhabited houses and there are more numerous and larger schools. The Fleshers’ Incorporation slaughter-house with a hide market adjoining occupies for a considerable distance one side of a street, and on the other side at a distance of but a few feet are ordinary small dwellinghouses. Entering by the main gate, I found to my right a large oblong ill-paved courtyard, with slaughter-houses facing each other on either side. At the two extremities there were cattle-pens. The slaughter-houses might just as well have been coach-houses. With the exception of a beam or two to suspend the carcasses there was nothing about them to indicate that they had been built as slaughterhouses. There were no modern appliances. As for the floor, which is so important both from the sanitary and from the slaughterers’ point of view, it was of concrete, but it was worn out and was split and cracked in many places, so that it no longer protected the subsoil from contamination. Nor was there any effective method to check the slipping both of the cattle and the slaughterer which is the cause of much inconvenience and of some accidents. The cutting open and cleaning out of the animal are done in the open air immediately in front of each of the slaughter-houses and here for a few feet the ground is also covered with concrete. This, however, does not suffice, for the blood and offal are not confined to this narrow border but are allowed to stray on to the paved centre of the yard. Here the blood and liquid fecal matter sink freely into the soil between the loose paving stones. The sheep pens were very filthy; they have but cobble pavement and the blood remains on these round little stones or sinks in between them. Beyond there was an open drain leading to a square aperture protected by an iron grid which was supposed to keep out solid matter. Nevertheless this catchpit was full of blood, offal, and manure. There are other small catchpits in various directions, where in spite of the grids fecal matter and solid pieces of offal get through and reach the street sewer beyond. One of these catchpits is more than a yard square. Lifting off the lid I found that there were below four inlet pipes and one outlet towards the street sewer. As the outlet was on a higher level than the bottom of this pit there is always a deposit of offal and blood, the top part of which is washed off and is carried to the sewer with every fresh inrush of water.

The place set apart for pig-slaughtering is very small and insufficient and there were traces of slaughtering outside as well as inside. In a pit hard by stable manure was overflowing on to an insufficiently paved yard, and near to this were three filthy pail closets for the use of the men. These nuisances are at the right hand extremity of the central yard and behind the pig slaughtering shambles are some fearful stables, where the cattle are allowed to wallow in their manure, which it would seem is but rarely removed. In one stable I measured that the chaff and manure mixed formed a solid layer six inches deep. The terrible features of this slaughter-house are the leaking on all sides that takes place, thus contaminating the subsoil, and the facility with which offal can reach the street sewer. The condition of the stables is even worse.

At the opposite extremity of the central yard is the Aberdeen Hide, Skin, and Tallow Company’s hall. This is a broad, low-roofed, and rather dark place. Fresh hides were lying about on the ground and the approaches were far from clean. On one side there is the tripe, tallow, tongue, and head depot, and beyond is the meat-selling depot, where there is also a small refrigerator. The whole place is gloomy. Wooden pillars and rafters abound and these are thick with grease and dirt. There is nowhere any trace of a scientific conception indicating that anyone concerned knew how such markets and slaughter houses should be built. It would seem as if the members of the Fleshers’ Incorporation had never seen a model slaughter-house or market for perishable goods. That small private slaughter-houses should present such defects is not surprising, but this is a slaughter-house constructed, not for an individual, but for a guild and for men who, being all of them butchers, should have known better. From this place I went to see some private and small slaughter-houses, where I found much the same defects. There was no attempt made to prevent blood and liquid manure from soaking into the subsoil. In West Hutcheon street I found shambles with very slippery floors and wooden partitions caked with blood, awful stables, and an abominable smell of stagnant liquid manure. Then there was gut-cleaning going on in a little unventilated passage barely three feet wide, from which the most appalling stench escaped. There were no drains in the stables: all liquid stagnates or gradually finds its way to the yard, where it percolates into the soil. As for ventilating the stables this is effected by removing one of the wooden boards of which the roof is made. In one of these slaughterhouses there was a carcass of a bull covered with tubercles. The inspector who accompanied me remained here to see that it was taken away and destroyed. But if he had not happened to call that day the tubercles could have been removed and the flesh sold. Indeed, one of the principal reasons for insisting on a public slaughter-house is the necessity for facilitating the inspection of meat. Such inspection can never be relied upon unless all the cattle are slaughtered in one place and no butcher is allowed to sell meat that does not bear the stamp of the slaughter-house inspector. This is the general practice abroad. When a carcass has been examined it is stamped in various parts and the purchaser sees that his butcher only exposes for sale in his shop stamped meat. All this is quickly and easily done when the various services are concentrated on the same premises. All the butchers being submitted to exactly the same regulations and expense there is no longer any temptation to gain an advantage by resorting to some unscrupulous or unfair form of competition. When once the change has been effected all private slaughterhouses being abolished, and the butchers being compelled to avail themselves of the scrupulous cleanliness, the improved mechanical appliances, and the greater safety and wholesomeness of a public abattoir, they are generally well satisfied. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the town council of Aberdeen will persist in its determination to carry its project forward. They have waited for 32 years; that is surely long enough, and the present state of the old slaughter-houses in the town is a scandal that should at once be dealt with.

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