A chronic shortage of butchers has caused a massive backlog of pigs on farms, and now low prices for British produce have left some farmers facing imminent bankruptcy.
Business failings are inevitable over the next few weeks unless drastic is taken, industry experts have warned, with some pig producers losing an estimated £20,000 a week.
The news comes as hundreds of pigs are slaughtered on British farms because of a lack of workers to process them for sale.
Phil Woodall, general manager at Thames Valley Cambac, a leading pig marketer, said first and foremost the sector has been hit by “a vast shortage of butchery staff as a result of Brexit, aggravated by the pandemic.”
He added that the situation has been aggravated by cheap imported product coming from the EU. German producers have been limited in their ability to export pork to China, a crucial market, because of bouts of African Swine Fever.
“So Germany, one of the power houses of pork production in the EU, is flooding parts of the rest of Europe with cheap pork,” Mr Woodall explained. “This is an aggravation to the crisis, which is adding to the UK’s staff issues.”
A normal animal that goes to slaughter weighs around 85kg and the cost of producing it is around 160p a kilo.
“We are being undercut by European prices,” Mr Woodall said. “Some processors have been buying those pigs - which cost 160p a kilo to produce - at 75p and 80p a kilo.
“That means some producers are losing around £68 per pig, and an average producer may sell 200-300 pigs a week.”
With these prices, farmers could be losing £20,000 a week, a figure that Mr Woodall branded “unsustainable”.
He predicted inevitable business failings and, ultimately, a greater reliance on imports as British firms go bust.
“We are effectively exporting our industries to countries that have worse animal welfare standards, and the Government are standing by and watching this happen,” Mr Woodall concluded.
Meryl Ward, who runs a family farm in Lincolnshire, said that “retailer shelf is now being filled by foreign-imported pork that doesn’t meet our welfare standards.”
Speaking at a Conservative conference event on Monday, environment secretary George Eustice conceded that to get the backlog of surplus pork out of the door, farmers might have to slash their prices in the short term. He said: “We might need to adjust prices to clear the backlog. Farmers won’t appreciate that with businesses at risk now.”
Around 120,000 pigs await a cull if labour shortages at abattoirs aren’t remedied. On Monday, the National Pig Association confirmed that some farmers in East Anglia have already begun to slaughter more than 500 pigs to ease overcrowding.
Zoe Davies, chief executive of the group, told The Times that this was “just the beginning”. She said: “This is not excess supply, farmers have been contracted to grow these pigs, but the facilities are taking a quarter less than they agree because they simply don’t have the butchers.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson has described the pig cull as part of a necessary post-Brexit transition. Speaking on the BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, he said: “I hate to break it to you, Andrew, but I’m afraid our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals, that is the reality.”
He added: “There will be a period of adjustment, but that is, I think, what we need to see in this country.”