Why are pig farmers protesting, is there a pork crisis and will it affect Christmas dinners?

041021 Pig farmers protest outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, PA
Pig farmers protest outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Credit: PA

Pig farmers and those involved in the British pork industry have protested outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester amid fears 120,000 of the animals could be killed and the meat burnt in incinerators rather than being eaten as part of Christmas dinners, due to labour shortages.

Farmers have warned that a shortage of butchers could see up to 120,000 animals slaughtered on farms and then incinerated because they cannot go to the abattoir and they have nowhere left to house them.

Pig farmers were protesting outside the Tory conference in Manchester on Monday morning, calling for a temporary visa scheme to bring more butchers into the UK.

They held up placards saying: “No butchers. No bacon. No British pig industry.”

Why is there a crisis in pig farming?

Over the past couple of weeks, farmers - in particular the pig farming industry - have been warning that the UK is heading into a welfare disaster that could see a mass cull of over 100,000 animals in the coming days.

The industry has said pigs will have to be killed and incinerated by farmers because of a shortage of abattoir and butchery workers, which is causing a huge backlog of healthy pigs being held back on farms, unable to be sent to abattoirs, and getting too big to be housed.

Rob Mutimer, the chair of the National Pig Association (NPA) told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week the situation is an “absolute travesty”.

Mr Mutimer added that his pigs are usually around 115kg when they go to slaughter, but are now getting up to around 140kg.

“The pens and the sheds and everything just weren’t designed for animals of this size and we’re really heading into an acute welfare disaster very quickly”, he said.

Why can’t enough pigs be slaughtered at abattoirs as normal?

In an open letter, Mr Mutimer said that since the beginning of August, 25% less pigs were being processed each week and the situation had now "reached the point where some farmers are facing a welfare cull of their pigs for rendering because they have simply run out of space and have no ability to shut off the pig supply coming through".

Is Brexit to blame for the crisis?

Industry experts have said there are several reasons for staff shortages, including the Covid pandemic, global, industry factors as well as the end of freedom of movement brought on by Brexit.

Editor of Pig World, the official magazine of the National Pig Association (NPA), Alistair Driver, wrote in an article: “But Brexit has – undoubtedly – been a significant factor, not least the loss of access to EU workers in our plants that has left them short of capacity and unable to process the pigs that are coming through on farms. And this is not about wages or conditions”.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) warned last month that staff shortages in the industry were “already reaching 15% and above”, hampering food production and putting meat companies “around six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules”.

The BMPA’s chief executive, Nick Allen, recently said the problems were down to the refusal of the Home Office to allow in skilled workers from abroad to address the labour shortages.

The NFU’s Ms Batters called the situation ‘exceptionally serious’, explaining that the industry is seeing “43% vacancies in the processing sector, that is butcheries where there is a massive shortfall and … 35% shortfall in the workforce that’s seasonal workers, farm workers, and then 11% on drivers”.

“It is why the whole industry … have all come together and said ‘we need an emergency scheme, a Covid visa scheme in order to keep the show effectively on the road to get through this short-term period’”, she added.

Most big players in the industry, including the NPA, BMPA, and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), have all issued statements calling on the government to introduce a Covid visa recovery scheme to help ease the current labour shortages and allow more butchers into the country.

Why are pig farmers angry at Boris Johnson?

Following his appearance on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of failing to take seriously the plight of pig farmers.

He faced an angry backlash from the farming community after appearing to be unaware of the crisis in the industry, despite recent extensive reporting on it, while being questioned by Andrew Marr on the potential culling of 120,000 pigs.

His initial response was to tell the presenter: “I hate to break it to you but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. I think your viewers need to understand that."

Protesters outside of the Tory party conference in Manchester. Credit: ITV News

After it was spelled out to him by Andrew Marr that the whole problem was that they could not be sold for food and they would have to be disposed of on the farms, Mr Johnson responded with uncertainty: “Right, if I may say so, the great hecatomb of pigs you describe on farms has not taken place. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see what happens”.

The prime minister caused further anger by then suggesting the labour shortage was a question of the industry pay and conditions needed to attract domestic workers to the job.

“You are talking again about an issue to do with a shortage of a particular type of workforce,” Mr Johnson said.

“Actually, what I think needs to happen is, again, there is a question about the types of jobs that are being done, the pay that is being offered, the levels of automation, the levels of investment in those jobs”.

Mr Johnson also added on the foreign workers issue: “But what I would say is that what we can't do in all these sectors is go back to the tired old model, and reach for the lever called uncontrolled immigration, and get people in at low wages”.

Demonstrations outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Credit: ITV News

Many in the industry took to Twitter to express their anger at the comments, with the chief executive of the NPA Tweeting: “This is absolutely disgusting… I’ve never seen such wilful disregard and disrespect in my life. You should be ashamed @BorisJohnson. This is your mess. Time to fix it."

Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said Mr Johnson’s comments showed ministers were “out of touch” with the problems of a key industry.

“The government’s incompetence and chaotic lack of planning is about to lead to the biggest peacetime cull of pigs. This cull is a disaster for pig farmers and risks Britain’s food security”, he said.

What has been the government’s response to the crisis?

Late last week, a spokesperson for the Department For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the PA news agency it was aware of labour shortages in the meat industry.

“We understand the importance of seasonal labour and we are aware of the challenges that the pig industry has faced in recent months because of the Covid-19 pandemic and labour shortages, and Defra has been working closely with the pig and processing sectors during this time,” he said.

“We are keeping the market under close review and continuing to work closely with the sector to explore options to address the pressures industry is currently facing”, he added.

But while those in the industry had been calling on the government to ease visa restrictions for foreign workers, The Times newspaper reported that Home Secretary Priti Patel has resisted the move to recruit foreign butchers.

A Home Office spokesperson told PA: “We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad. Our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.

“The government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, career options, wage increases and investment”.

What do pig farmers want to happen?

BMPA’s Nick Allen dismissed suggestions by ministers that the real issues were a lack of investment and an unwillingness to pay high enough wages to attract British workers.

“The idea that we have just been dependent on cheap labour, we haven’t been investing in infrastructure, is utter nonsense,” he said.

“It is lot more complicated than that. Even though we have increased wages quite dramatically, we are still not getting people wanting to do that job”.

Those in the industry have said the first thing the government should do is acknowledge the scale of the crisis and immediately issue temporary visas to foreign butchers to help clear the backlog on farms and avoid a devastating mass culling event.

But the industry has also been calling on retailers to do their part and help support British pork over EU product, especially during the Christmas period.

In an open letter, NPA chair Rob Mutimer said increased volumes of EU pork are being imported into the UK because they’re cheaper, multiplying the backlog issue on British pig farms.

“Highly processed products such as gammons needed for Christmas have diverted essential butchery staff resource away from that required for British pigs,” Mr Mutimer wrote.

“We have also seen other products that require no butchery being imported and prioritised over more labour-intensive British products, simply to keep the supermarket shelves full.

“These two issues combined have resulted in a slowing down of the throughput of British pigs through plants, which is adding to the already severe backlog”, he added.

He asked retailers to help avoid a mass culling scenario of healthy British pigs and a waste of good pork saying it would be “financially ruinous and incredibly damaging for your supply chains”.

What have protesters said?

Pig vet Duncan Berkshire, who was taking part in the pig farmers’ protest outside the Tory party conference said the industry was demonstrating to "ask the government to give us some short-term Covid recovery visas of 12 to 18 months, which would allow that bottleneck to be unleashed and for us to not end up having to kill pigs on farm, which would be an absolute travesty when we want to get good, high welfare, quality-assured pork to UK consumers.”

Vicky Scott, a pig farmer based in East Yorkshire, said the protesting pig farmers had come from all across the country.

“There is a huge crisis going on in UK pig farms at the moment," she said.

“For about the last 11 weeks we have been reduced in our contracted pigs going in to slaughter by 25%, so there is an estimated 150,000 extra pigs on farm. And obviously that’s growing every day.”

She added: “Right now the blame has got to be with the government because they don’t appear to understand the problem, and the problem is massive and really real. And we’re being forced into making the decision as to whether to kill pigs on farm.

"Obviously if we have to kill pigs on farm they can’t go into the food chain. So it’s just a huge waste. It’s immoral really that we are going to be forced into this position.”

Ms Scott said farmers do not raise pigs “to waste a lot of resources and energy and time to just end up killing our pigs and put them into landfill. It’s disgusting. And it is that bad. And they don’t seem to understand. And all we need is some more butchers into the processing plants.”

"Pork is still coming into this country from lower welfare standards abroad and yet we are not killing our own meat that has been produced to a really high standard. So, it is disgusting."

Vicky Scott said animals being slaughtered due to a lack of butchers is a 'disgusting' situation

She said: “None of this is the farmers’ doing. We pay our staff really, really well. We’ve got good staff. And they do a really good job. It’s not our fault that there are not enough butchers in the processing plant. And we are the ones that are going to get left with this emotional and financial disaster.”

Ms Scott added: “The retailers are just filling their shelves with foreign stuff. It’s criminal that we are going to be forced to make that decision and kill healthy animals for waste.”