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 cannot be taken to slaughter.
The 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, requested an urgent summit last month 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.
She said ministers wanted to engage with the pig industry on how fairness and transparency could be improved, and a consultation is expected later in the year.
Measures the government introduced 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 also recently been extended until the end of March.
Producers have said 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”.
Zoe Davies, the chief executive of the NPA, said the meeting had been a positive start to discussions about how to solve the crisis in the pig industry.
“We didn’t get any big commitments today, but I don’t think we expected any,” she said. “The government is committed to finding a solution and we will make sure they are successful, otherwise there won’t be a pig industry.”
Davies said producers wanted processors and retailers to work together to tackle the backlog of pigs on farms, while retailers could also do more to promote British pork.
Batters said the review of supply chain fairness was positive, but would “do nothing to alleviate the crisis taking place on pig farms across the country”.
“We now have a long-term plan but no short-term fix,” she said. “Without urgent action, I fear the pig sector will contract even further and we will see increases in pork imports that are produced to lower standards. That is something I certainly don’t want to see and neither do the public, who want to buy high-quality, British pork.”
She called on the government to consider giving financial support to the farmers most affected, which has been provided in Scotland, Northern Ireland and some EU countries.
The number of pigs stranded on farms has been rising since the industry began to sound the alarm last autumn. It 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.
The cull of healthy pigs on farms continues, with an estimated 35,000 animals killed since September, according to the NPA, although it said 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.
Ahead of the summit, pig farmers from the UK gathered in York to raise awareness about the challenges they face.
Farmers have been forced to kill and dispose of 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.
“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.”