pig in straw

Defra launched the storage aid scheme last October as part of a wider support package for the pig sector

The government has expanded elements of its pig sector support scheme for an extra two months in a bid to finally tackle the backlog of animals that has brought producers to the brink.

Defra this week said it would extend the private storage aid scheme, launched as part of a wider rescue package last October and originally due to end on 2 February, until 31 March. A new Slaughter Incentive Payment scheme for processors launching on 14 January will also run until the same date.

The support scheme – which also included a visa for 800 foreign pork butchers – was introduced after weeks of pressure from the pig sector in October over the growing backlog of pigs on farms caused by an oversupplied European pork market (due to China’s import ban) and a shortage of butchers in UK meat plants.

However, the measures had not helped so far, according to National Pig Association CEO Zoe Davies, and had been taken up by “none of the major processors” .

Davies this week likened the crisis to a “car crash” as she warned the situation had “got worse” during the past few weeks. About 35,000 healthy pigs have now been culled, according to the NPA, and the British Meat Processors Association estimates the backlog stands at 140,000 animals.

According to Defra, “processors have advised that they are more likely to access the PSA scheme in the period January-March when demand is usually lower, and as additional butchers continue to arrive and their capacity to slaughter pigs increases”.

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However, Davies was sceptical over the impact of the new measures, which could still be “a pointless waste of time”.

“The processors made a lot of money out of China,” she said. “They encouraged all of the pig producers in the different countries to expand, to produce more pigs. The bottom fell out of that market and effectively the processors then just said ‘well, we don’t want those pigs anymore’ and left the producers high and dry.”

Davies also described as “appalling” comments by environment secretary George Eustice, who told the website Politics Home last week that though culling amounted to “a waste” and was “distressing”, the cull number was “relatively small” in the light of overall slaughter tallies.

“You say that to a farmer who’s just had to kill a couple of hundred pigs on his own farm, and see what he comes back with”, she said.

The visa scheme announced in Defra’s original rescue package had also faced criticism before Christmas, after comments by a Home Office minister that less than 100 butchers had applied for the scheme were met with dismay by a pork sector that had previoulsy described the scheme was too little too late.

Recruitment had “taken longer than initially expected for several reasons, primarily due to concern around the Omicron variant”, said Defra’s spokesman.

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“The time of year and the skilled nature of the role have also contributed to this delay,” he added. But with butchers now arriving, and both take up and interest in private storage aid increasing “we expect progress to be made on reducing the backlog of pigs on farm in the coming months”, he said.

But progress could still be slow-going, according to the BMPA’s Allen, who said the dearth of butchers had already left supermarket shelves full of rough-and-ready cuts, with the staff shortage leaving overworked butchers with little time for craftsmanship in the run-up to Christmas.

The UK imports around 60% of the pork consumed in the country, according to the BMPA, though that could change in the wake of controls and checks on imports from the EU being implemented from 1 January, which in turn could lead to some respite for the UK’s pig farmers if domestic demand grows and displaces cheaper European pork.

The checks could make importing ”a bit more difficult and expensive”, Allen said.