Stewart Houston, a leading figure in the British Pig Industry Support Group and a former chair of NPA and BPEX, looks back on the dramatic events of 20 years ago.
The summer of 1998 was the most pivotal period in the British pig industry’s history. Back then, there was NO NPA, NO BPEX, NO AHDB, NO strategy, NO Red Tractor, NO email and NO iPhones. Stalls and tethers were still legal (until January 1, 1999) and France won the World Cup.
Later in the year, the 38th David Black Award was won by Malton boss Max Hilliard, who joked in his acceptance speech that Saddam Hussein’s family was upset that he was being compared to Max!
A series of well documented economic events led to the lowest AAPP for years, well below the cost of production, with no spot price for surplus pigs. Most of the producers had emptied their bank accounts making changes brought about by the ‘chance-in-a-million’ Richard Body Private Members Bill banning stalls and tethers.
The industry came together at a July crisis meeting at Bishop Burton College and formed the ad hoc British Pig Industry Support Group.
For the first time we had producers, allied industries and processors standing together to fight for the survival of the sector. Pig World editor Digby Scott ‘volunteered’ to help with PR and communications, most of which were done by phone and fax!
When I look back at the camaraderie built up over those next few months, everyone working together for a common cause, organising protests and rallies and demonstrations which took them outside their comfort zones (although some enjoyed it!) – that was when we built the foundation for today’s modern pig industry.
Imports that did not meet our new standards were the focus of ‘meetings’ at ports of entry, cutting plants and retail distribution depots.
Reaching the hearts and minds of the British consumer and their idea of fairness was the other strand of BPISG’s work, organising rallies and stunts to gain press attention. Who would have thought that we would work with the Metropolitan Police to organise a rally in London? And that Meryl Ward would get away with organising our own train to get Northerners to London? It was late because it hit a pheasant which blocked the radiator!
Later that year, BPISG, supported by then NFU president Ben Gill and DG Richard Macdonald, Grenville Welch (BPA CEO) and John Godfrey, brokered the BPA Commercial and Allied Industries Committee merger with the NFU Pigs Committee to form the National Pig Association.
At the same time, Don Curry, the then Meat & Livestock Commission chairman, offered to help us create the British Pig Executive, putting producers and processors in charge of the focus for pig levy spend.
These new organisations had a baptism of fire, having to deal with classical swine fever in East Anglia, rapidly followed by foot-and-mouth in 2001. Had they not been in place to design and implement the marketing, R&D, export and pig health strategies in the early 2000s, the industry would have been reduced to a few hobby farmers.