Pig farmers have been demonstrating outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester amid concerns that up to 150,000 animals may have to be slaughtered on farm and the meat burned in incinerators due to labour shortages.
The sector has been calling on the British government to widen a temporary visa scheme, which has been introduced in the poultry sector, to bring more abattoir and butchery works into the UK.
Rob Mutimer, National Pig Association (NPA) chair, described the situation as “an absolute travesty”. Mutimer, who runs a 750-sow unit in Norfolk, producing pigs for retailer Waitrose, said his pigs were now getting to 140kg. Normally, they go to slaughter at around 115kg.
“The pens and sheds and everything just were not designed for animals of this size and we are heading into an acute welfare disaster very quickly.”
One of the main problems has been that since the start of August 25% fewer pigs have been processed each week. This has been due to a sudden exodus of EU workers who left the UK after Covid-19 lockdowns eased and follows a steady steam that exited the country post-Brexit.
Minette Batters, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president, has been calling for an urgent meeting with home secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Kevin Foster. “I do not feel anybody can preside over a welfare cull of healthy livestock. I do not believe it has happened in the world before and it cannot happen now.”
Pig producers have been particularly unhappy by the way the prime minister Boris Johnson has treated the crisis. Speaking on the BBC at the weekend, Johnson suggested the labour shortage was due to poor industry pay and conditions that were failing to attract domestic workers.
“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.”
Peter Hardwick, British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) trade policy adviser, said the number of EU workers leaving the UK was rising with a number of companies reporting shortages of up to 20%.
“EU workers are leaving or have already left. They now either will not or cannot come back, with butchery and related skills not on the shortage occupation list. When this is raised with government it is dismissed that we simply need to pay more. This overlooks the fact right across the sector that wages have risen sharply by as much as 20% and yet it still proves impossible to sustainably recruit local staff, who do not want to do this type of work.”
The UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was working with pig and processing sectors and was keeping the market under close review as well as continuing to work closely with the sector to explore options to address pressures currently facing the industry.