The government has announced an immediate review of fairness in the pig industry supply chain, and has promised to look into pig contracts, in response to a worsening crisis in the sector, as an estimated 200,000 pigs are backed up on farms and unable to be taken to slaughter.
Farming minister Victoria Prentis made the announcement following a summit with pig producers on Thursday to discuss ways to solve the continuing crisis in domestic pig production.
The National Pig Association (NPA) chair, Rob Mutimer, and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president, Minette Batters, last month requested an urgent summit to address labour and supply-chain concerns in the pig industry, as well as financial difficulties faced by producers.
“The effects on pig farmers have been devastating, and it is clear that many contractual arrangements are simply unfair,” Prentis said.
Prentis said ministers want to engage with the pig industry on how fairness and transparency could be improved, with a consultation expected later in the year.
In addition, measures introduced by government in the autumn to support pig producers – including permitting foreign butchers to enter the UK on temporary visas, longer working hours at processing plants and a scheme allowing producers to store pig carcasses for several months before processing – have recently been extended until the end of March.
Pig producers are warning that the British pig industry is fighting for survival. They had called on government to hold a summit because they said the previously announced support measures had delivered “minimal benefit”.
“The situation is dire,” said Mutimer, ahead of the summit.
“Getting the backlog down by the summer will simply be too late for many pig farmers. This is a crisis unfolding in front of our eyes – and we must act collectively now to save the British pig industry.”
The number of pigs stranded on farms has been rising since the industry began to sound the alarm last autumn, and has almost doubled from 120,000 to nearly 200,000. The backlog of pigs increased rapidly over the festive period when staff took holidays or had to isolate with Covid.
Meanwhile the cull of healthy pigs on farms continues, with an estimated 35,000 animals killed since September, according to the NPA, although it warns that the actual number is likely to be higher.
Pigs are backing up on farms because of a lack of staff at the abattoirs where they are slaughtered. Only 100 of the 800 temporary butcher visas granted by government have been taken up so far, the NPA said.
It has called on ministers to simplify the visa application process and ease the English language requirement to make it easier to recruit trained butchers.
The NPA had also requested government consider giving financial support to the worst-affected producers, which it says has been provided in Scotland and in EU countries.
The association has called on retailers to play a role in supporting producers, including through a mass promotion of British pork.
Ahead of the summit, pig farmers from the UK gathered in York to raise awareness about the challenges they are facing.
Farmers have been forced to kill animals to make space and ensure the continued welfare of their livestock.
The meat industry is one of many sectors of the UK economy grappling with labour shortages linked to Brexit and the pandemic, while a lack of delivery workers and drivers has affected supply chains.
“I personally know of another 1,000 pigs killed a couple of days ago on one farm,” said Duncan Berkshire, a pig vet in Yorkshire who also attended Thursday’s summit. “It is just devastating for everyone involved.”
Berkshire added: “In the last three months of visits I haven’t had a single client where there isn’t a problem on the farm that can’t be put down to the fact that pig flow has been interrupted.
“The pigs I am seeing at the minute are the biggest I have ever seen and the tightest packed together.”