Pilgrim’s UK in crisis talks over Brechin plant

Pilgrim’s UK has held crisis talks over the future of the Brechin pork processing plant amid growing concerns over the sustainability of the site in the absence of its licence to export pork to China. 

Brechin, Scotland’s only major pork processing site, is owned and operated by Quality Pork Ltd (QPL), a close collaboration between Scottish pig farmers, Scotlean, a cooperative of Scottish pig producers, and Pilgrim’s UK, which is the sole customer of the site.

The site, currently existing on low pig throughput, has been struggling since January 2021, when it voluntarily suspended its export licence with China following a Covid outbreak, with the expectation that it would be reinstated once the outbreak was contained. However, despite being given the all-clear by public health authorities a few weeks later, Chinese officials have so far refused to reinstate the licence, with reports claiming that this is related to ongoing political tensions between China and the UK.

In a statement, Pilgrim’s UK said it ‘remains deeply committed to Scottish pig farmers and customers of Scottish-reared pork.

“However, the surrender of its China export licence has meant that the QPL abattoir in Brechin has become unsustainable. We remain optimistic that we can work this through while facing into the various on-going challenges impacting the industry,” it said.

Discussions are ongoing with key stakeholders.

The Scottish government provided a hardship fund for farmers affected by the export licence suspension, but this only covered the period ending March 31, 2021, while farmers and producers continue to face ongoing challenges and mounting losses.

QPL, Pilgrim’s and other key stakeholders in the Scottish pork sector have continued to press for the reinstatement of the China licence, and for ongoing support for the sector from the UK and Scottish governments throughout this period.

However, with pig throughput at the site remaining unsustainably low, and with no indication that a resumption of the China export licence is forthcoming, Pilgrim’s confirmed that it is no longer commercially viable to maintain current arrangements.

Serious concerns

In the summer, NFU Scotland president, Martin Kennedy, wrote to Pilgrim’s, expressing ‘some serious concerns for the future of the pig sector in Scotland resulting from the uncompetitive price being paid by Pilgrim’s for pigs going to the Brechin abattoir’.

“The price is uncompetitive compared to alternative market routes and this has resulted in the volume of pigs going to Brechin falling dramatically and operations at the plant being reduced to three days a week,” he said.

“Should the current situation persist we are concerned for the future of the abattoir itself as to operate effectively it needs a critical mass of pigs to process efficiently – we simply won’t have enough pigs left in Scotland to meet this critical mass if the current situation persists.”

Pilgrim’s responded at the time by calling for ‘immediate intervention from the Scottish Government.

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Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.