Many producers are frustrated at a perceived lack of support from UK supermarkets

The backlog crisis that has crippled the pig sector was slammed as an “utter disgrace” by NFU president Minette Batters last week.

Driven by a post-Brexit shortage of butchers and the flooding of the European pork market after a Chinese import ban, the crisis was wreaking increasing havoc on the finances and mental wellbeing of beleaguered pig producers, Batters told the NFU Conference in Birmingham.

With 200,000 pigs currently backlogged on farms – and a further 40,000 healthy animals already culled since last autumn – industry experts believe it could take many months to resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, many producers are growing frustrated at a perceived lack of support from the retail sector to drive demand for British pork and to help clear the backlog. So could supermarkets be doing more?

There have been steps from Defra, with a recent pledge to launch an inquiry into supply chain fairness, and the widening of its Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme so minimally butchered carcases can be sold domestically – but many pig farmers think retailers can make the biggest contribution to tackling the crisis.

However, in contrast with promotional activity launched in the wake of the beef carcase balance crisis at the start of the pandemic, only Morrisons and Waitrose have made tangible public commitments to help ease the pork backlog, via a promotion to drive shopper demand and an increase in farmgate pricing respectively. (However, others such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco stress they have also been active in promoting British pork in recent months).

As a result, the fresh pork category (like wider grocery) has seen more price increases than decreases in recent months. Assosia data for The Grocer shows a total of 121 price hikes across the 10 biggest supermarkets since the end of August, with just 41 decreases.

Waitrose deli counter

Waitrose was one of two supermarkets to make tangible public commitments to help ease the pork backlog

Social campaign

With that in mind, The National Pig Association launched a social media campaign, Pork Report, last month, in a bid to single out “the good examples where retailers are doing their best to back British producers”.

But the campaign also highlighted many examples of foreign pork being promoted instead. “The reason they give us is [due to labour shortages] they can’t get enough” British pork, and therefore have to depend more on imported cuts,” says NPA CEO Zoe Davies

However, the mults themselves differ. Asda blames a “lack of processing power” for any reduction of British pork on shelves, but also stresses it recently began sourcing an extra 50 tonnes of it per week. A spokesman says it will “continue to look at what support we can offer at this time while also ensuring that customers can continue to access a good choice of pork products to suit all budgets in our stores”.

Sainsbury’s points out it has sourced 100% British fresh pork since 2013 and insists it has “introduced a range of promotions throughout the year, as well as larger joints of meat”. The retailer has also introduced a “bespoke payment mechanism” which removes price volatility and allows farmers to “invest in their business and continue improving pig health and welfare”, a spokeswoman adds. 

Tesco says it is “promoting pork across all our ranges in support of our British farmers and continue to work with our suppliers to respond to industry challenges”, adding that demand for pork products such as sausages and cooked meats remains strong – which may go some way to explaining why it, and other retailers, continue to supplement British pork with imported pork that is often also promoted.    

Meanwhile, Morrisons says it is “currently running deals both on its butchery counter pork and in pre-pack, to help farmers clear the backlog,” says a spokeswoman. “We are investing in a wide range of pork offers – on bacon and steaks, plus belly, collar, leg, rib and shoulder cuts. We are also increasing the amount of pork we prepare – both at our meat sites and by our butchers in store,” she adds.


While other retailers stress they have also been doing their bit, Morrisons was alone in announcing a major promotion of British pork in November and says it continues to do so across a wide range of products

AHDB’s bi-monthly Pork Watch country of origin audit shows the total percentage of British pork sold in January across the UK’s e;leven biggest food retailers is at a similar level year on year (80% versus 81% in January 2021). However, it also shows there have been some big dips across some retailers in specific categories.

Examples include Iceland’s total British pork facings falling from 49% to 26% year on year. Elsewhere, Lidl has seen its British bacon facings fall from 43% in January 2021 to 25% in January 2022, while even Morrisons has seen its British facings fall slightly over the past year, from 57% to 54% for bacon, and from 68% to 65% for ham.

British Meat Processors Association CEO Nick Allen says the sector processed more pigs last year than in each of the previous 15 years – despite the impact of labour shortages of up to 15%. “Processors have been trying hard to cope with the amount of pigs they are facing.”

Further increasing British pork promotions – as seen during the beef mince crisis – would be welcome, but he also warns (as seen during the beef crisis) that it could heap further pressure on the carcase balancing situation. “You’ve got to find a home for the rest of the animal if you replace some of the imported cuts,” Allen says, noting the market for so-called fifth-quarter cuts is depressed due to China’s import ban.

Davies accepts supermarkets have taken some measures to tackle the crisis, including simplifying ranges.

“However, I do think, promotion aside, there is more they could have done to encourage shoppers [to buy more pork],” she adds. They could agree to take product when it comes out of Defra’s Private Storage Aid scheme as one example, or funnel meat into added-value products such as pigs in blankets, which are frozen once manufactured. “That would be relatively simple,” she points out.

But there should be no doubt that more action of some kind is needed now, says farmer Vicky Morgan, who runs the Save GB Bacon social media campaign with sister Kate.

“The retailers and processors need to put their money where their mouth is and support us. We have an extra 2,500 pigs on our farm and we’re not eating into the backlog,” she urges. “They are not supporting us and are hiding behind the processors, and we don’t benefit from the premium of producing higher welfare pigs, even in the good times.”

Until the sector works out a plan for this crisis, farmers like Morgan will continue to struggle.