The fall in slaughter numbers means the MLC levy is also under pressure. So what now for the advertising strategies, asks Julian Hunt British farmers have had everything thrown at them in recent years ­ ruinously low prices, swine fever, foot and mouth and animal wasting diseases. The last problem alone has cost farmers £21m so far this year. Is is any wonder so many have decided to quit the pig sector at such a dramatic rate? MLC figures show pig numbers have fallen by one third in the past three years and slaughter numbers are forecast to be just short of 10 million animals this year and next. If nothing else, the rapid decline reflects how brutal the free market can be. But the low number of pigs is also causing massive operational headaches for slaughterers as they chase animals. And it is bad news for the MLC which has seen its levy income fall in line with the drop in the number of pigs slaughtered. That in turn has focused minds on how best to spend the available resources. This year's marketing was by necessity focused on support for the industry in the wake of FMD. Hence the tactical work ­ both advertising and in the trade ­ to boost sales of pork cuts, such as shoulder steaks, that would have been exported in more normal times. As a result, the MLC did not follow up last year's controversial campaign. And while marketing director Richard Lowe says the MLC will probably not repeat those "shock tactics" he remains unrepentant about the ads ­ claiming the campaign did its job in raising the debate about the issues of animal welfare. "Throughout last year there was an improvement in awareness in consumers about what our Quality Standard Mark stood for." As for the pig farmers themselves, many of them continue to question what value they really get out of funding a marketing organisation that promotes all species. And the debate is heating up. Lowe says: "We have to welcome the debate. Out of it will come a strategy for going forward which will be more widely supported. If we can persuade the majority of farmers there's a strategy they can sign up to, that has got to be better than having one that they are forever sniping at." But faced with the prospect of less levy cash the MLC needs to make sure it gets the biggest bang possible for its bucks. One strategic issue is whether it makes more sense to promote fresh British pork (which effectively has 100% share in retail) or bacon (with less than a 50% market share). Lowe says: "At the moment there is more concern about holding on to the fresh pork category and working with retailers to develop that and grow demand for British." In addition, farmers ­ who are aware that Britain will never be self sufficient in pigmeat ­ don't want to see their money being used to grow the overall market to the benefit of imports. Instead they want to add value to British products, says Lowe. Nevertheless, he thinks it would be wrong simply to bang on about a Buy British' campaign. "We need to understand what levers we can pull to get people to buy British," he says. "And price is the major factor in the purchasing decisions of consumers," he admits Lowe adds: "It is our job to be realistic with pig farmers. We can't make people buy British even though there is a very large latent desire to do that. Our challenge is to convert that latent support into proactive purchasing behaviour." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}