September 2015: What will come first, profit or UK consumers?

I’ve been considering how the UK pig industry would react to unprecedented export demand. It’s commonly predicted that it won’t be too long before the growing middle classes in China, and Asia generally, come calling for more of our high-welfare pork, switching from offal and fifth-quarter cuts to the products we’re used to seeing on the shelves here.

AHDB Pork chairman Meryl Ward suggested as much in our recent interview with her, and preparing for this market was also a central reason for former Danish agriculture minister Dan Jørgensen’s plans to increase pig welfare in his home country.

Now, a report from Rabobank suggests that demand could come much earlier than expected – any time now, in fact. The Dutch bank’s analysts suggest that the loss of 10 milion sows (equivalent to the breeding herds of the US, Canada and Mexico combined) from the Chinese pig herd could result in a 600,000t increase in imports in the second half of 2015! And the EU is perfectly placed to supply.

Clearly the troubles that have hit the Chinese economy in the past couple of weeks could affect that projection, but it’s worth thinking about what that sort of demand could do for our pig sector here in the UK.

Imagine the retailers having to compete for home-produced pork with Chinese buyers looking to supply the best-quality meat to their massive home market. How will that work out?

I can see this sort of scenario putting huge pressure on the pig chain. Relationships between processors and supermarkets could become strained if there are opportunities for increased profits selling elsewhere.

Will the processors even be prepared to risk the security of retailer contracts for short-term gains from the export market?

The biggest issue will remain the fact that pig producers will have little influence on the price they receive because we’ve little or no stake in the UK’s processing sector.

I was quite critical of the Belfast Telegraph (BT) last month because of its sloppy reporting of plans for new pig units in Northern Ireland, but it really surpassed itself in mid-August when it judged the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) worthy of commenting on a tragic pig unit fire in the province.

At the end of a well-written, straight news story on the fire, which killed 36 sows and about 400 piglets, the BT included the following:

“Animal rights organisation Peta has called for the pigs which survived the blaze to be allowed to live out the rest of their lives at a sanctuary.

Mimi Bekhechi, the group’s UK director, said: “They’ve been traumatised enough and should be sent to a sanctuary to live out their lives in peace.

“(They should) not be put back into a system that treats them like commodities until they’re big enough to be slaughtered for someone’s bacon roll.”

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About The Author

Graeme Kirk has been editor of Pig World since March 2013. Born into a farming family in South-west Scotland, he’s spent his career in agricultural journalism.