As exports boom, don’t forget the domestic market

Former AHDB chair Meryl Ward urged the pork industry not to lose sight of its core markets, as exports continue to soar, when she addressed the Nottingham Farming Conference. Chloe Dunne reports

UK pork exports continue to boom on the back of soaring Asian demand, but we must not forget the all-important domestic markets, former AHDB Pork chair Meryl Ward has warned.

Overall UK pork exports were up by 13% year-on-year in November 2019, with China accounting for nearly half the shipments. UK processors are certainly enjoying the benefits and, while pig prices have not risen as far or as fast as many would have liked, the current export trade is driving profits – and has averted a much worse situation.

The flip side of the coin, after all, is that domestic demand continues to struggle, with pork and bacon sales significantly down year-on-year in the last quarter of 2019.

Speaking at the Nottingham Farming Conference, at the Sutton Bonington campus in January, Mrs Ward warned that the short-term benefits of the current export trade must not detract from the longer-term focus on servicing and developing domestic markets.

“There’s no escape from global and political influences on the bottom line of pig businesses, but we need to assess our strengths,” the Lincolnshire pig farmer said.

“ASF in China has left a huge hole in global protein production. It’s a fantastic opportunity in the short term, but the biggest question is how should we be handling this as an industry?

“Will our actions now compromise us in the long term? There is only so much pork supply at the moment.”

Mrs Ward outlined how the export trade, as well as generating over £500 million annually, is vital to extracting the most value from the pig carcase.

But she added: “Export markets are not easily won – it can take years to build them sustainably. If something goes wrong and there is a health scare, we can lose that market overnight.”

Mrs Ward also pointed out that herd recovery is a massive priority for China, meaning the current situation is unlikely to be sustained in the long term.

She called for an improved focus on the needs of domestic consumers, highlighting a ‘golden opportunity’ to grow the market for domestic pork, as imports are diverted elsewhere.

The findings of a recent European Food Safety Authority study underpinned the importance of origin and price as the pork attributes most highly prioritised by EU consumers.

“Consumer perception is really important, but so is price – we need to become more competitive at both. At the moment we aren’t quite managing to get the right product at the right price,” Mrs Ward said.

“We have a higher cost base in this country, so therefore we can’t engage in a race to the bottom with the EU and US. We need to highlight the great value and versatility of pork over other proteins, and the environmental and welfare credentials of a home-produced supply.”

Mrs Ward said producers need to assess their strengths and weaknesses to make themselves more important to their customers. In return, they should expect to receive a fair pricing mechanism at farm level to deliver these differences.

She praised the work of organisations such as the NFU and AHDB in promoting a positive image of UK farming, but stressed that with just 54% of consumers seeing the UK pig industry in a positive light, there is still more work to do.

In particular, she believes there is potential for pig producers to do more to meet consumer demands over animal welfare and the environment.

There are likely to be opportunities for grant funding under the revamped post- Brexit ‘public goods’ agricultural policy for implementing measures like loose farrowing or loose lactation, or improving carbon footprints.

“This is a big opportunity for the sector, and independent pig producers especially – I see great hope in the next decade to connect the marketplace and deliver value directly back to the farm,” she said.

Soring Exports

  • In November, UK pork exports reached 22,400 tonnes, a record for the month and up 13% year-on-year
  • Shipments to China totalled 10,800 tonnes, more than double the volume of November 2018.

Home Struggles

  • In the 12 weeks to December 29, total GB pig meat sales fell by 4.5% year-on- year, Kantar figures show
  • Primary fresh/frozen pork was down by 8% in volume and 7% in value
  • Bacon sales were down by 6%, although prices were up 8%.

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