A cull of healthy pigs has begun on farms as a drastic shortage of skilled butchery workers has led to a backlog in abattoirs and an unprecedented situation in the meat supply chain.
Animal welfare, the viability of farm businesses and the supply of British pork are all threatened as a mass cull is looking increasingly likely, according to pig farmers, who have laid the blame squarely at the government’s door.
Pig farmers have been warning of the building crisis for several months, with protestors outside the Conservative party conference this weekend highlighting the issue.
Farmers reacted with anger when Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to dismiss concerns, stating that “our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals”, while environment minister George Eustice pointed the finger at processors who he said are prioritising EU meat.
The chief executive of the National Pig Association, Zoe Davies, said: “We know of a handful of farmers who have had to cull some pigs – around 600 we are aware of in total. There has been no mass culling yet – although I do believe this is the next stage in the process."
A statement from campaign group Save British Bacon said: “Pig farmers are in a dire situation. They are being forced to kill healthy pigs because there is not enough room on pig farms.
“A combination of Covid and Brexit has led to a shortage of skilled labour in the processing. Since January as a result of Brexit, export checks from the UK have been very strict. Three are still no import checks and the start of this is unknown. This means importing is easy and exporting less so.”
It comes amid a growing shortage of workers across multiple sectors, exacerbated by Covid, and leading to a vacuum in vital jobs across the food supply chain, including butchers, drivers, packhouse workers, fruit and veg pickers and hospitality workers, leading to questions around the wages, working conditions and the value placed on these jobs in society post-Brexit.
Pigs are bred on a weekly cycle meaning the supply of live animals ready for slaughter builds up quickly and leading to the current situation. Intensive farming systems, where pigs are kept indoors and fed, have little excess space. While organic pig farmers are not currently facing the same issues, as the amount of organic pork produced in the UK is fractional, and with outdoor farming there is more room to hold pigs on farms, organic farmers are also warning of the same pressures in abattoirs.
Managing director of organic pork supplier Helen Browning’s Organic, Vicky McNicholas, said the shortages have definitely been worse since Brexit, but “Covid has been the real catalyst”.
“Many people who were planning to stay after Brexit decided to leave to be with their families during Covid,” she said. “So an already tight labour market became tighter. Add to that Covid illness and self isolating, and also these staff have worked all the way through Covid with very little furlough as demand for meat increased and they are tired. A perfect storm all round,” said McNicholas.
“[This is] a sector of workers who are, in my opinion, unsung heroes doing a skilled job for relatively low wages and under appreciated by society who have got used to cheap food and therefore underrate the value of food.”
While Brexit has accentuated the labour shortages particularly in fruit and veg picking, which relies on largely seasonal labour from eastern Europe, in butchery there has also been a longer-term decline in people entering the trade, as well as an ageing workforce.
Manager of organic veg box company Riverford’s butchery, Matt Flynn, said: “In 2019, the nationwide average of EU workers in meat processing companies was around 70 per cent, of which, roughly 40 per cent were skilled butchers and slaughter line workers. With many EU workers returning home after Brexit, this has left a hole in the industry that is very hard to fill.
“Wages for butchers have risen due to demand and the lack of skill set, but before now the average butcher pay was around £10/ hour, which is lower than an Amazon warehouse worker in some cases. This, along with the heavy work and demands of the role have made it very hard to recruit new people into the industry.”
For McNicholas, it’s about more than just higher wages. “It’s far more about the fact we haven’t valued our food correctly. We spend more on premium crisps than we do on 200g of meat – that’s the real difference."
And while the cost of food doesn’t reflect the cost of producing it, there’s also the question of making jobs more appealing, she said.
“For an awful lot of people, it’s not about the money they earn, it’s about the conditions and the values of the company they work in,” she added.