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More than 200,000 animals are now backlogged on farms

Defra is to launch a review of supply chain fairness in the pig sector in a bid to tackle the “devastating” crisis that has led to more than 200,000 animals becoming backlogged on farms.

Speaking after a crucial supply chain summit convened by Defra at the end of last week, farming minister Victoria Prentis said the government “wanted to support the industry to reduce the current backlog of pigs on farms”.

“It is clear that many contractual arrangements are simply unfair,” Prentis added.

“Our Agriculture Act includes provisions to address this unfairness. We want to hear from industry about improvements to fairness and transparency that could be made to ensure a profitable and productive future and we will begin engaging with industry on this straight away with a consultation expected later this year.”

Her comments follow calls for processors and retailers to do more to support pig producers by the National Pig Association and NFU ahead of the summit last Thursday – with a particular focus on the need for more supermarket promotions to drive the purchase of backlogged British pork and for processors to loosen specifications on overweight pigs.

The crisis has been caused by a chronic shortage of butchers alongside a ban by China on European pork – which has flooded the market and driven down pig prices.

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Following the meeting, “some progress” had been achieved, said the NPA, with a “coherent plan” now set to be worked on via “further groups” that would look at the logistics of easing the backlog, including the capacity available in individual plants.

It added the government was also looking at changes to the support package for the sector it first introduced last October, including allowing fresh pork from pigs processed under the Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme to be sold on the domestic market.

“This would help get more pigs through the system and add value to the carcase,” said the NPA, which also welcomed Prentis’ pledge to meet with the Home Office’s to look at issues around labour shortages.

Only 120 of the 800 visas available under the government’s support package have been used so far, amid concerns over their suitability for tackling the crisis’ issues. The NPA and other food sector bodies are instead calling for changes to the skilled worker route, including the removal of the unnecessary English language requirement and adding butchers to the shortage occupation list.

“This is an animal health and welfare, logistical, financial and mental health crisis all rolled into one,” said NPA chair Rob Mutimer, who added the pig sector was “running out of time”.

“It has been going on for six months without any sign of it coming to an end – we have seen tens of thousands of pigs culled on farms, at least 40 producers have left the industry and the pig herd is contracting rapidly.”

Those that remained “need some hope, something to believe in. In reality this is just the start and no more,” he added.

“We will continue to push for compensation and, crucially, for changes to allow more butchers to work in the pork industry. And, of course, we very much welcome the commitment for a review of pork supply chain. This is an opportunity to forge more stable and fairer contractual relations across the supply chain.”

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It comes as Waitrose announced late on Friday that it would extend the short-term support package it launched for hard-hit pig farmers in November.

“We will be extending our pledge to pay a fair and sustainable, minimum price for pork to all of our dedicated farmers – even if prices continue to fall,” the retailer said.

“We need to support our farmers before it’s too late to save their bacon. They kept food on our tables through the pandemic, and we need to help them through their tough times too,” said Waitrose senior agriculture manager Jake Pickering.

“By guaranteeing a base price for pork, we’re protecting farmers for the months ahead and allowing them to plan for a long-term, sustainable future,” he added. “We’re urging other competitors to follow our lead, committing to 100% British pork and supporting farmers when it matters most.”

The move was welcomed by Mutimer, who said there was “a huge amount retailers can do in terms of the price and promotion of British pork – only with their support can we plan for a sustainable future for our industry”.