Events that shaped the National Pig Association

Stewart Houston, former NPA chairman and chief executive, and a hugely significant figure in the NPA’s 20-year history, recalls some of the events that shaped the association and the pig industry

It’s the summer of 2000… and units all over East Anglia (and elsewhere) are bulging at the seams with pigs because of the CSF movement restrictions. Producers are desperate. We arrange to see then-NFU president Ben Gill at home, where we find him in his working clothes in a yard full of grain waiting to be dried. He is sympathetic to our pleas for support and arranges a meeting with Minister of Agriculture Nick Brown.

A few days later we are in Nick Brown’s office. He listens carefully to our problems and our suggested solutions. Officials don’t want to commit to any support. It’s 10pm and we adjourn to give the Minister time to think and consult.

When we reconvene, thanks to Ben’s great relationship to Nick, the Welfare Disposal Scheme is born, despite opposition from officials.

There is a caveat. MAFF will pay the costs up front, but NPA is charged with persuading producers not affected by the disease (including the Scots) to contribute to a levy to repay the MAFF costs. We’ve done our homework and the scheme is quickly up and running.

It’s early 2001… the NPA is barely a year old, and we are in MAFF supporting MAFF vets in a wash up, led by an EU Commission vet, of the successful handling of the CSF outbreak. The lady is very polite and positive about the way we’ve dealt with it, if a little disappointed that we haven’t pinpointed the cause. Its lunchtime and we are aware of Blackberries pinging and vets gradually leaving the meeting.

We’re asked to go and see Jim Scudamore, the CVO at the time, and Jim gives us the shocking news that there is a strong suspect case of FMD in pigs in Northumberland, a possible source of the outbreak. We’re almost in tears as we walk back to Shaftesbury Avenue to inform the NFU. Ben Gill is in Brussels and we report the news to him by teleconference, worried that having just come through a bruising CSF outbreak, we won’t be able to cope with another exotic disease.

Then, in the midst of the lengthy movement restrictions, a new wasting disease, PMWS, becomes evident and is a disaster for pig producers fighting to recover from several years of poor prices. It’s a race against time to develop a vaccine.

It’s a Sunday in 2007… a lady from Defra telephones to ask if NPA could come down to London straight away to form part of an industry core group to support the new Defra CVO, Debbie Reynolds, as she battles with the Pirbright FMD outbreak.

A week later, I’m still down there, having stocked up with clean clothes in M&S. It’s a strange atmosphere. Most of the Defra officials don’t know how to deal with us, or the fact that we are privy to government information that would not normally be shared.

Reputations were won and lost as some core group members found it difficult to keep their fingers off the ‘send’ button, sharing confidential information ahead of permission to do so. Other members of the group sorted them out without the need of support from officials.

It’s June 2008… after a meeting of the NFU Policy Board, it’s evident that the cost of feed is going to rocket on the back of strong cereal prices. The message went out to ‘buy forward as much as you can TODAY!’ Another rollercoaster and the word ‘volatility’ enters the pig farmer’s vocabulary. It’s January 2013… our European competitors are meant to have completed their conversions from stalls and tethers to loose housing. NPA has been challenging the retailers for some time on the provenance of their European pork purchases, but now it’s real. They should comply.

Many have not and the Commission is toothless, so we start to name and shame retailers and foodservice companies who will not sign up to our welfare charter. The Walls of Fame and Shame are born, giving us a terrific lever in our negotiations. Over 100 sign-up, giving us huge media coverage, which we used to push our government department procurement initiative.

At the same time, a ‘new’ disease is plaguing American and Canadian pig farmers. PEDv has arrived and, despite the strong support of COPA for action, the Commission is sitting on its hands.

NPA takes the initiative and works in partnership with Defra and BPEX to protect our industry by making the disease notifiable in the UK, but uniquely resting responsibility with industry.

Events have continued to mould NPA, giving those in the organisation responsible for delivery the confidence to deliver on a host of issues, from environment and antimicrobial resistance, to the most recent spate of incursions that blight the life of ordinary, hard-working pig farmers.

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