The UK pig industry has asked the government for help after Brexit-related border problems and an influx of cheap European meat led to more than 100,000 surplus pigs backed up on farms around the country.
The National Pig Association wrote to George Eustice, the environment secretary, last week asking him to convene an urgent meeting with processors and retailers in the face of “higher costs, falling prices and a shrinking market”.
“Most pig processors expect to enter a lossmaking situation in the first quarter of 2021,” Richard Lister, chairman of the National Pig Association, said in the letter.
The NPA said pig farmers had been hit by a combination of factors including bureaucratic delays resulting in pork exports dropping to a quarter of normal volumes.
“The overall picture is now one of enormous disruption to our export supply chain but of minimal problems and relative ease for EU imports into the UK,” Mr Lister said in his letter.
“This imbalance, combined with other market pressures and Covid-19, is a serious threat to our industry.”
That imbalance has resulted partly from the UK phasing in customs requirements for EU imports over six months, a grace period that the EU has not reciprocated.
Rob Mutimer, a Norfolk pig farmer whose Swannington Farm to Fork sends older sows to Germany for salami, said border delays meant EU businesses risked turning to other countries for reliable supply.
“If we don’t get this trade flow issue sorted out then we’ll lose these markets that have been around all my lifetime. If UK suppliers are not reliable, then German factories will go elsewhere,” he said.
The disruption of trade was causing costly backlogs on his farm, he added, with 2,000 pigs now awaiting slaughter — all of which must be fed with expensive animal feeds.
Vets are struggling with volumes of paperwork for newly required export health certificates, said the NPA, while there was confusion last year over whether pork exporters would face a new requirement to test for trichinella, a type of worm — a requirement that has now been brought in.
These issues have led to “turn backs and destruction of products”, said the NPA.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was only aware of a “very small number” of turn backs. “We are working very closely with traders to ensure they access the extensive advice available to support their transition to these new arrangements,” a spokesperson added.
The UK both imports and exports pork because British consumers eat different parts of the pig from those in the EU; the UK imports bacon, while exporting pigs’ ears and heads, said Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 outbreaks have slowed meat processing, and cheap German pork flooded the European market after African swine fever in wild boars there led to a ban on German exports to China.
That has pushed the UK pork price down 12 per cent year-on-year, said the NPA, including its biggest weekly drop since 2016.
Pigs are being slaughtered at a weight higher than usual because of the back-up on farms, leading to financial penalties. Deadweights have reached 92kg compared with 83 to 84kg normally.
As a first step, the pig industry wants retailers to agree to prioritise sales of UK pork and push to sell the less popular cuts.
Mr Lister said his own North Yorkshire pig farming operation was also faced with about 2,000 surplus animals. Prices for cull sows, older animals usually exported for salami and cured meat, have dropped 75 per cent in 10 months, resulting in an “almost valueless product”, he added.