British meat processors have put in a £16m legal claim for compensation after the foot and mouth outbreaks this summer.

The British Meat Processors' Association has instructed solicitors to build a case against the government, which owns the lease to the Pirbright research laboratories, which were the source of the outbreak.

The £16m would cover the direct costs incurred by FMD and had been reached after a detailed survey of abattoirs and meat processors, said Stuart Roberts, BMPA director general, who estimated that the average loss for each BMPA member was more than £100,000.

"BMPA members and others in the industry have suffered three months of financial damage they can't afford," he said.

"History is littered with examples of companies who have had to deal with the financial consequences of releasing pollutants into the environment. I see no reason why this incident should be treated differently."

The automatic slaughter bans imposed after the outbreak had cost the processing industry nearly £2.5m, Roberts said. But this was dwarfed by the £13.5m losses from the export market closures for offal and hides.

Packers were also forced to re-label products and change the oval health stamp to a round one to show products were not eligible for export.

Processors were still angry that despite three inquiries, no-one had been held directly responsible. "It appears that the government's own principle that the polluter pays does not apply," said Roberts. "I assume that if robust systems had been in place at the Pirbright site then the FMD outbreak could have been avoided."

Getting the government to admit responsibility would be tough, said industry experts.

"It's easier to claim compensation if you've suffered property damage rather than financial loss," said Richard Lane, commercial litigation partner at Wright Hassall. "But morally the government ought to pay compensation in this case."