British producers are caught between declining pig numbers and increasing imports of lookalike brands

The UK market has suffered from a decline in domestic pig numbers, but according to the Meat and Livestock Commission, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In 1993 the British breeding pig herd stood at 780,000. By 2002, it had fallen to 558,000. However, Chris Lukehurst, MLC pigmeat marketing manager, is cautiously optimistic: “The fall in the British pig herd appeared to bottom out in October and it’s actually showing some signs of growth.
“We’re not seeing the start of a massive recovery but there is a slight upswing in numbers.”
The fall in pigs has meant a significant change in the market over the last few years, with British product all but disappearing from the shelves. And despite the upswing, that’s unlikely to change in the short term. In fact, Lukehurst says the British have lost ground in the premium sector of the bacon category, something the industry had done well to hold on to up to now.
“The Danes have made some good inroads,” he says.
Waitrose is one retailer that is particularly loyal to British, thanks to its dedicated farmer suppliers. However, while all retailers have pledged to support British product wherever possible, it’s not always that easy, as Tesco’s bacon buyer Richard Horsham points out: “Unfortunately, if you can’t procure enough, then you need to source it from somewhere else.”
Lukehurst remains positive about British bacon’s future: “I’m sure things will go back the other way,” he says, but he warns: “We’re not going to take our share back in the next six months.”
Meanwhile, both the MLC and the British Pig Executive are actively campaigning to clarify country of origin on labelling.
Lukehurst says: “There are some tertiary brands out there with a very British aura about them when the product is actually imported.”
BPEX has also hit out at the level of imported product claiming to meet UK welfare standards. Lukehurst said a study revealed the volume of such imported products did not tally with the levels of production.
But there has been a least one positive development in the British sector this year - Roach’s acquisition of Glanbia Fresh Meats in July. This meant a rationalisation in the processing sector, which Roach md Mark Forbes says will at least allow the processors to remain competitive against imports.