Pig industry leaders have reacted with fury at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments over a potential cull of thousands of healthy animals that now face being slaughtered and incinerated.
East Yorkshire is one of the largest pig-breeding and processing areas in the UK, while the Yorkshire and Humber region accounts for 37 percent of the English pig population with hundreds of jobs connected to the pork sector.
Healthy pigs to be incinerated
However, farmers are facing the possibility of having to slaughter and incinerate tens of thousands of pigs on their farms due to staff shortages at processing plants caused by a combination of Brexit and Covid-19. They have been warning about the crisis for months but now say mass culling could start within days.
Interviewed on yesterday’s BBC1 Andrew Marr Show, Mr Johnson appeared to play down the issue, saying it was no different from what normally happened to livestock. He said “I’m afraid our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals, that is the reality. That’s just what happens”.
Industry figures say the difference is that a cull would not see animals being killed at abattoirs and processing plants for food, leaving farmers without any income.
Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said Mr Johnson appeared to treat the issue as a joke at a time when pig producers are staring down the barrel of an horrific pig welfare cull. She added, “I have never seen such wilful disregard and disrespect in my life”.
Pig farmers demonstrate outside Tory Party conference
Driffield-based pig farming sisters Kate Morgan and Vicky Scott today joined others demonstrating outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester to raise awareness about the crisis facing their sector. Around 50 farmers, suppliers and vets took part in the hastily arranged protest.
Kate explained that they are here to tell the prime minister that pigs will soon have to be killed on farms if temporary visas aren’t made available:
“His ignorance of the situation was appalling. That we are even talking about killing healthy pigs is a disgrace. The build-up of pig numbers is massive. Some piglets have already been killed. In the next few weeks it will be happening on a huge scale, unless factory capacity is increased.
“If I have to kill healthy pigs on my farm, I’m not sure I could do it. I’d rather let them go free in the woods. I’d certainly never be a pig farmer again.”
Government blamed for lack of Brexit planning
She also claimed some processing companies should also bear some responsibility for the current situation.
“Brexit happened five years ago and, with 60 percent of the workforce being EU nationals, they could see that worker numbers were going to dry up. They should have started adjusting contracts over time, instead of encouraging us farmers to keep on producing and then hit us with this.”
The sisters keep around 1,700 breeding sows on their farm and would normally supply 900 weight bacon pigs a week. For the last three months, this has been reduced by 25 percent due to a lack of capacity at processors.
Vicky added that a huge crisis is going on in UK pig farms at the moment:
“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. We are being forced into making the decision as to whether to kill pigs on the farm. Obviously if we have to kill pigs on the 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.
“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 but we are the ones that are going to get left with this emotional and financial disaster.
“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.”
Shortage of butchers due to Brexit
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said instead of being able to take on extra staff in the traditional run-up to Christmas, processing plants were struggling to maintain normal staffing levels with some large plants down by as much as 15 percent:
“We are short of skilled butchers and these aren’t people you can just pull off the street and put in a processing plant. It takes time to train these people and we are about 10,000 to 15,000 people short on the numbers that we need.
“We are not asking the government to go back to free movement and opening the doors again, we are asking them to help us manage the transition. It takes 18 months to train a butcher and get them up and running. We have had this long-term reliance on non-UK labour which is going to take us a long time to adjust to.”
Surprise at the prime minister’s lack of understanding
Mr Allen said he was “surprised” at Mr Johnson’s comments and suggested he did not understand the situation facing the industry. “We have been talking to the government on a daily basis about this so I am somewhat surprised he wasn’t aware of the situation”, he added.
The pressure on the region’s producers was underlined recently by the decision of Ed Rowbottom to stop breeding pigs at his family farm in Melbourne, near Pocklington. He said, “It’s been a wrench. We have had pigs in the family for 50 years and that legacy ends with me. It’s upsetting and disappointing”.
Charlie Dewhirst is a policy adviser at the National Pig Association and comes from another long-established pig farming family near Driffield. He is also deputy chair of the East Yorkshire Conservatives and was recently elected as a councillor on East Riding Council. Speaking last month, he said:
“Business is very tough indeed and it’s a very challenging time for the industry. The labour shortages are having an acute effect on the supply chain and in many ways farmers are bearing the brunt of this right now because the most acutely hit part of the supply chain is the food processing sector and that is the sector that buys animals from farms.
“As the slaughter numbers have reduced in recent weeks we have around 70,000 pigs backing up on farms and these pigs should have gone on to slaughter. This has a huge impact on farms in terms of cost and, potentially, welfare as there is only limited space on a farm for these pigs and of course the longer they stay, the more it costs to feed them and the heavier they become so they become cheaper to sell.
“All this is a vicious circle and at this moment it’s very hard to see a way out of it.”
Prime minister promises a better Christmas amid supply chain crisis
Mr Dewhirst said the processing sector had been heavily reliant on non-UK labour, particularly from Eastern Europe, in recent years:
“Covid has hit it hard because there has been less fluidity in the labour market and many people have changed behaviours, they have returned to their country of origin to work there because the travel restrictions have made it very difficult to make it flexible.
“So we have seen a big drop-off particularly in that sector. It tends to be people with butchery skills and it has created an acute shortage and one which we can’t really see a way of filling at the moment with British workers. There is a shortage that, as it stands, cannot be overcome and therefore farmers are stuck with lower throughputs.
“You can’t just shut off a farm, these animals have to go somewhere to slaughter and our biggest fear across the industry is that this becomes more of a welfare problem as much as a cost problem because eventually farms run out of space. Nobody wants to see some form of welfare cull or anything like that.”
Mr Dewhirst said several large processing plants in and around Hull were all struggling with staffing despite unemployment being relatively high in the city. Butchery is a skill not many people have in the UK, as it’s not regarded as a popular job, he explained:
“That’s why we have been so reliant on foreign labour. It is a problem. Hopefully we can find a temporary and urgent fix to it. Some sort of covid recovery visa that would allow a temporary release of workforce into the UK would be a really good way for us just to overcome this and then look at the longer term challenges of getting more British people into those jobs to cover that labour shortage.”