The UK government has finally acted to try to avoid a mass cull of pigs by allowing trained foreign butchers to come to work on temporary visas.
Farmers across Britain say a combination of Brexit and Covid-19 has sparked an exodus of east European workers and caused an acute shortage of butchers and abattoir workers – leaving pigs to back up in barns and fields across the country.
It has been warned that up to 150,000 pigs could be destroyed as the labour shortage in meat processing has led to the backlog of animals ready for slaughter.
While farmed animals are killed for food, a cull would be different as the pigs would be sent to waste and would not enter the food chain as bacon, ham or other products – a point that seemed to elude Boris Johnson when he shrugged off concerns.
On Thursday, environment secretary George Eustice announced the U-turn and said the UK will offer six-month emergency visas to 800 foreign butchers to avoid a mass cull as part of a package of measures to help the industry.
What’s the problem?
The crisis in the pig industry is driven by similar forces to those that have caused long queues at the petrol pumps and warnings of empty shelves at Christmas.
Post-Brexit, the government said it is encouraging the sector to make agricultural employment more attractive to UK domestic workers, and acknowledges many of the negative headlines are part of a teething process.
Other sectors have had support. Ministers announced last month that 5,500 temporary visas will be issued to poultry workers and 5,000 to HGV drivers in an attempt to prevent shortages in the run-up to Christmas.
But pig farmers say they have been ignored.
Because of an ongoing shortage of workers in food production – the chain that gets animals from field to fork – pig farms are struggling to find space for the extra animals, leaving them with no choice but to cull them in the face of overcrowding concerns.
Earlier this month, the National Pig Association said at least 600 healthy pigs had already been culled due to the nationwide labour shortage in abattoirs. A mass cull was “the next stage in the process”, it said.
What have farmers said?
Pig farmers are angry and frustrated.
They protested outside the Conservative Party conference last week, arguing the shortages could lead to the “emotional and financial disaster” of tens of thousands of UK pigs being killed for waste. They held up placards saying: “No butchers. No bacon. No British pig industry.”
In an emotional interview on BBC News, farmer Kate Morgan urged the prime minister to “have the guts to stand up and talk to us” as campaigners called for short-term visas for foreign workers to be issued.
She fears she will have to cull pigs on her East Yorkshire farm before the end of the month, which would be a “criminal” as people are “starving” in the UK.
“We are in the worst position that UK agriculture has ever found itself,” Morgan said as she was on the verge of tears.
“Emotionally, physically, financially, we are in the worst position that UK agriculture has ever found itself”
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 8, 2021
What did Boris Johnson say?
Johnson responded to concerns that animals may have to be culled because there’s no abattoir workers to slaughter them for market by pointing out that they were all destined to die anyway.
Despite media reporting on the issue, the PM appeared to be unaware of the problem when he was questioned on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.
His initial response was to tell the presenter: “I hate to break it to you but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. I think your viewers need to understand that.”
When it was pointed out to him the whole problem was that they could not be sold for food and they would have to be disposed of on the farms, he accused the presenter of “trying to obfuscate”.
Pig farmer on @SkyNews describing the disaster of having to kill thousands of healthy pigs tells Boris Johnson, “Don’t make jokes about it. Don’t go on the Andrew Marr Show and make light of it. Just sort it.”
— Bill Esterson (@Bill_Esterson) October 14, 2021
Johnson later likened the culling of pigs to turning them into bacon.
“I was on the BBC the other day with a guy who was complaining that the pigs were going to be slaughtered, that 100,000 pigs were going to die”, Johnson told Times Radio’s Tom Newton Dunn.
“And I pondered the unhappy duty of pointing out to him that that is what happens to pigs in this country”.
He then asked Newton Dunn if he had ever eaten a bacon sandwich, adding: “Those pigs, when you ate them, were not alive. I’ve got to break it to you.”
What has the government said?
On Thursday, ministers finally responded.
Eustice unveiled the plan to bring in around 800 butchers as he denied that Brexit was the main issue constricting labour across supply chains.
Up to 800 pork butchers will be eligible to apply for visas from the existing allocation in the Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme up until December 31. The visas will allow them to travel and work in the UK for up to six months.
The government said the adjustment is temporary and is in addition to foreign butchers already being eligible since December 2020 to apply to come to the UK through the existing skilled worker route.
It also said it will fund a private storage scheme in England which will enable meat processors to store slaughtered pigs for three to six months so that they can be processed at a later date.
He also said rules restricting for EU drivers transporting goods would be relaxed so that they could do as many trips as they liked over a two-week period.
“What we’re going to do is allow butchers in abattoirs and meat processors dealing with pigs, to be able to come in on a temporary basis under the Seasonal Worker scheme for up to six months,” Eustice told reporters.
“That will help us to deal with the backlog of pigs that we currently have on farms to give those meat processors the ability to slaughter more pigs,” he said.
He said the “complex picture” was because of a series of “market disruptions” and “maybe some overproduction”, as well as the shortage of labour.
He added: “The pig industry and in common with many parts of the food industry has seen a loss of staff as many of the EU citizens that they relied on left during the pandemic – nothing to do with Brexit.”
“They were entitled to stay, but many of those chose to return to be with their families during a difficult time of the pandemic.”
HuffPost UK – Athena2 – All Entries (Public)