Updated: Jan 31, 2022
It is with great horror that I perceive the task of healthy pigs being culled on farms for economic reasons. It is bad enough for a farmer to lose livestock to disease, whether it be a dairy herd with TB or a herd of sheep with foot and mouth. What makes it worse is that it is out of financial necessity - you cannot keep a pig if you cannot sell it to be slaughtered and butchered. At this point we should note the use of words. When refereeing to livestock grown for meat they are slaughtered and butchered. Culling is very different. Although both terms involve killing “culling” sees as waste of the animal with no subsequent butchery for human consumption, only the process of rendering or incineration. For almost all farmers the farm is not the place to have any animal killed and such action on the farm is a last resort.
The resultant necessary protests against a belligerent Prime Minister and his party has taken a simple line that has seen the following slogans in support of British pig farmers:
“Go to your local butcher”.
“Back British Farming”
“Stop importing pork,”
“Save British bacon.”
The problem has been laid out clearly by the campaign. UK farmers are being forced to cull pigs whilst EU pork is still entering the UK. A combination of Covid and Brexit has led to a shortage of labour. Consequently farmers have been restricted from selling 75% of their contracted pigs to slaughter. Since January 2021 there has been no import checks on meat from the EU into the UK, whilst export checks have been onerous. This last point should be alarming when you can see reports of swine fever spreading across Europe.
The demands of the UK pig farmers are laid out simply
- Get more butchers into processing plants now
- Priority to British products on shop shelves
- More integrity in the supply chain from farmer to retailer.
It is easy for those outside farming, like myself, to make assumptions, judgements and if you listen to farmers properly you can soon learn you are wrong. Equally it is easy for farmers to dismiss those from outside the industry as knowing nothing, especially when the farming profession, alongside teaching and the police force, is constantly subject to third rate journalists, keyboard warriors and the great unwashed twitteratti that wish to tell them how to do their jobs. However, the ultimate person that the farmer is answerable to is the consumer and sadly the consumer has a wide disassociation with the reality of how they buy and consume meat and how it is reared. Farmers try to bridge this gap with education, such as the brilliant Kids Country scheme by the East of England Agricultural Society (Home - Kids Country (kids-country.co.uk)) ; open farm days; writing such books as the fabulous “For the Love of the Land “ by Jenny Jeffries that connects farmers, their stories and food. But the sad reality is that as a consumer takes their meat off the supermarket shelf or from the butcher’s window, or clicks online for their purchase, the farmer as a source of their food is least in their thoughts.
However, the defence that, “If you are not a farmer you don’t know”, is not healthy as the informed outsider can often see a different aspect as they look through a different window at the world of farming. As for myself, I am no expert. I understand the processes and finances of farming. I have an insight into the feelings and emotions of farmers. I have seen abattoirs in action first hand. I know many farmers. I enjoy eating pig. Yes I really enjoy eating pig and could wax lyrical about it but for fear I might plagiarise Jay Rayner or some equally knowledgeable food writer. However at the heart of true knowledge is admitting your own ignorance. As I gaze through my window at the current pig situation I realise my view is through a dirty window that is sullied with the grime of social media, third rate journalism and a lack of clear independent information. What I do know is that the problems and solutions are not as simple as they appear. To this end I find questions and all I can do is listen.
If the pig industry has known about the problem for months why did it not stop rearing pigs at the end of a cycle?
Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers Union and many other advocates for pig farmers have been on camera saying that this has been a known problem for months. Pork and poultry production have relatively short rearing cycles meaning, in theory, production can adapt relatively quickly to demand. In the case of a pig from insemination to slaughter is typically a period of twelve months, i.e. at six months age. This means that if sows were not permitted to breed 10 months ago surely all would be fine? Well, no. This would only push the problem backwards. Farmers cannot afford to feed barren sows or gilds (if less than one year), meaning a potential cull, albeit a smaller one, of sows – an equally undesirable outcome and one that is possibly yet to happen. I am told that if a sow is not breeding it can cause welfare issues as it becomes harder to control its condition and weight to the detriment of the sow and its future off-spring. Its not easy. Listen.
How long has the shortage of abattoir staff been a problem?
My guess it is worse due to Brexit and covid, but recruitment has been a problem for at least five years as evidenced by various advertising banners I have seen locally. Staff turnover can be high. Certainly there was a problem with closures due to Covid in March 2020 which did not hit the headlines. I am informed that some in the industry coped by alternating slaughter at different sites with short term furloughed lay-offs. I know first hand of some that took second jobs under furlough that were cleaner and easier causing them to step out of butchery. It’s a hard dirty job. Its not easy. Listen.
How well was government informed?
I imagine the AHDB to be the main source of information to government as it is to industry. But read the July 2021 market intelligence report for yourself and make your own view: https://ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/uk-pig-meat-outlook If government was informed what did they understand? Did they listen?
Can the UK pig sector provide all the UK’s pork?
As we import 60% of our pig meat that is consumed in the UK the answer is, “probably not.” Sustainable intensification of the pig industry in a style akin to the sterile “factory” pig production seen in Denmark and Holland is possibly the most efficient way to increase production at low cost. Such farming methods are distasteful in the UK as we observed with the opposition to the Nocton Dairy project in my home county of Lincolnshire. The Danish and the Dutch are historically well established in intensive pig production. Here in the UK we are sold on the idealised image of a floppy eared pig running happily through an open field. Its not easy. Listen.
Can we stop importing pork?
If we do we will run out! We could use non-tariff barriers as quotas to control imports like the European Union does. Such measures increase prices to the consumer. European pork has been cheaper than British pork for some time making the UK an ideal market for selling to. Currently EU pork can be imported with very few checks, the opposite applies to exports of pork to the EU effectively creating a non-tariff barrier to trade. However, there is a more important question to ask…..
Is the European Union deliberately dumping cheap pork into the UK as an aggressive act to undermine our industry?
I like to believe it is not. But it is very hard to tell . It is not easy. Listen.
Many of the affected UK pig farmers are rearing pigs under contract, are these contracts inflexible or fair?
I simply do not know. The devil is in the detail. Certainly not every pig farmer is affected. If the farmers are tied to contracts that see them continuing to take more pigs without shipping animals out for slaughter are those contracts onerous. Have farmers been caught out by bad business of their own or other people’s doing? There is a howling lack of detail available. Its not easy. Listen.
Why are some of the UK’s largest pig producers and processors very quiet at the moment?
There are clearly some businesses that are either capable of coping with the current challenges or may benefit from the misfortune of others. Its not easy. Listen.
Are all pig farmers affected?
Some farmers appear to be functioning without change. Certainly some bed and breakfast pig farmers seem unaffected. (bed and breakfast means the farmer is paid to rear pigs typically from about six to eight weeks of age until slaughter at six months and is paid for his “bed and breakfast”).
There are clearly big differences across the industry that are not spoken of possibly for business reasons or due to the good grace of those that are currently not in distress. Its not easy. Listen.
Are UK standards better than abroad?
On the whole yes. The following examples:
Sow stalls prevent pigs from turning around and reduces natural behaviour. The use of these being banned was championed by the late Sir Richard Body MP and his work resulted in a unilateral ban by the UK in 1999 with “limited” use permitted in the EU. Use in countries outside of Europe is still widespread.
Farrowing crates prevent sows crushing piglets as they feed and restrict the sow’s movement. This is permitted for the first five weeks in the UK and most of the EU. It is likely the UK will ban them.
Tail docking is only permitted in the UK and the EU where there is evidence of tail biting. 70% of UK pigs have tails docked with nearly all Dutch and Danish pigs tail docked. The necessity of this is often a by-product of intensified pig farming.
Castration – in the UK only 2% of pigs are castrated and this is done under anaesthetic. It is not permitted under Red Tractor and RSPCA standards. This compares to 95% in Denmark and 20% in Holland. The US and Brazil have no requirement for pain killers.
Neither the EU or the UK permits the use of hormones to increase growth or drugs to make bacon leaner. This is not the case elsewhere, especially in the Americas.
What lifts UK standards are the greater ratio of outdoor, free range and organic pigs compared to other more intensive production methods – but as we buy most of our pig meat at the moment these methods will not keep the shelves full. When it comes to welfare standards do we want our pig and eat it? Its not easy. Listen.
Is paying a good wage of at least £15 an hour a solution to the shortage of abattoir staff?
This is the amount of pay Minnette Batters quoted on BBC Question Time as the minimum amount paid by the firms she had contacted. But this misses the point. Paying higher wages now is effectively responding to a current market and may even be seen as bolting the stable door as the horse left. But this is not a fair criticism. What does need to be realised is that the problem started many years ago when in the past employees were seen as a cheap commodity with minimal investment enabled by a supply of willing cheap labour now cut off by improving lifestyles in Eastern Europe and Brexit. But that is possibly backward looking which is never productive. To learn lessons we need to look backward, but at the same time move forward. Perhaps Janus was best equipped to do this? This leads onto the next question. Its not easy. Listen.
Should the government permit abattoir staff to enter the UK to resolve the problem?
Yes, but will they wish to come here? From Europe, possibly not. However, if we are to be a “Global Britain” the whole world is open to us. No longer are we tied to a bias towards white Europeans but a common wealth of peoples from all over the world. However, before we tread the tired colonial steps of getting “Johnny Foreigner” to do the jobs we don’t like or do not wish to pay full price for I suggest a radical view to the immigrant and that is one of equality and fairness. In this spirit it is reasonable to enable any person that has lived and worked here for two years or more and stayed within our laws to stay here and become full citizens. It is to our collective shame we have repeatedly failed to do this in the past and instead fed a black economy of disenfranchised people that the food industry has exploited despite measures to prevent this. But then its not easy. Listen
Above all else these questions even if answered need to be treated with respect. Because behind this are real people, their livelihoods, lifestyles and homes all at risk. People hurting and in need of compassion.
So what do I say to the broken pig farmer that is distressed from hearing the bolt gun on his farm and seeing the lorries piled high with wasted animals?
Its not easy. I say nothing. I Listen.
You are not alone and there is always help available.
• FCN – FARMCOMMUNITY NETWORK tel: 03000 111 999 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• SAMARITANS tel: 116 123 email: email@example.com
• LRSN – LINCOLNSHIRE RURAL SUPPORT NETWORK tel: 0800 138 1710 www.lrsn.co.uk
Or view the organisations in the booklet on this link: