The NPA and NFU have called on Defra Secretary George Eustice to convene an urgent supply chain summit to seek solutions to the deteriorating pig sector crisis.
Due to the ongoing labour shortages in processing sector, the backlog of pigs on farms stood at around 170,000 before Christmas, according to Defra estimates, and increased rapidly over the Christmas holiday period due to slaughtering days lost to bank holidays and COVID absenteeism.
“As a result, the NPA and NFU are asking that you urgently arrange a summit of the entire pig supply chain so that we can agree a plan to get these pigs off farms and onto people’s plates,” the letter states.
In the first full working week after New Year, some farmers reported that as few as 50% of contracted pigs were taken by processors, with average levels still at around 30% of contracted pigs not being taken on a weekly basis.
In a clear sign that the situation is not improving, average carcase weights have continued to rise, now topping 95kg, nearly 9kg heavier than two years ago, and in some plants, deadweight averages are even higher than that.
The NPA has been told by farmers, vets and renderers of more than 35,000 healthy pigs have been culled and disposed as a result of the backlog since September, although the actual number, when unreported cases are taken into account, will be much higher.
Meanwhile, challenging market conditions, exacerbated by the costs associated with the backlog, record pig feed costs and falling pig prices mean farmers have now been losing approximately £25 per pig for nearly a year. “Clearly this is not sustainable,” Mr Mutimer and Mrs Batters told the Defra Secretary.
The NPA knows of 30,000 sows that have been removed in the last six months, equating to around 10% of the English sow herd, and again this is likely to be an underestimate.
“We are aware of 40 independent farms that have left the industry already,” the letter states. “All of these factors are taking a huge toll on farmers’ mental health as the crisis worsens every week, especially for those having to endure the trauma of culling healthy animals when there seems to be no end in sight.”
While the NPA and NFU remain grateful for the industry support measures, which were announced in October last year and recently extended, they point out that the measures are not working as intended and have failed to alleviate the backlog of pigs.
The NPA is aware of only 105 butchers that have, or are due to arrive, using the temporary visa scheme. More are coming to the UK via the Skilled Worker Visa route but will take much longer to arrive. It is understood that Defra has only received three applications for Private Storage Aid and that there has been no take up at all of the Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme.
The NPA and NFU call on Mr Eustice to improve the visa application process to make access simpler and quicker in order to help reduce the backlog.
While the backlog grows, producers are stuck in a ‘vicious circle sees farmers rearing heavier and heavier pigs which the processor then penalises them for’. “It is totally unacceptable that processors continue to take overweight pigs that they contracted farmers to produce at hugely discounted prices,” the letter adds.
The letter also calls for Defra to encourage retailers to collectively play their part in running marketing campaigns to increase British pork sales to help steer the industry out of this crisis. Only Morrisons and Waitrose have done this so far.
“In order to gain commitment and kick start a plan of action by the supply chain, we ask that you convene an urgent face-to-face summit of pig farmers, processors and retailers at the earliest opportunity, and ideally before the end of January, so that we can finally remove the backlog of pigs and get this beleaguered sector back on track,” the letter concludes.