Britain’s pig producers are warning that as many as 70,000 extra animals are stranded on UK farms as a result of shortages of workers at abattoirs and meat-processing plants.
The excess numbers of pigs on UK farms is growing by 15,000 each week, with about a quarter fewer pigs leaving for slaughter than would be expected in normal times, according to the industry trade body the National Pig Association (NPA).
Pigs that are ready for slaughter but are stuck on farms require feeding and housing, causing difficulties for farmers. These large pigs are growing by about a kilo a day, according to the NPA.
“I am getting calls every day from members saying we are in a mess,” said Zoe Davies, the chief executive of the NPA.
“People are using cattle sheds, temporary accommodation outdoors, anything they can do to alleviate the pressure on farm but there just doesn’t seem to be an end. We don’t have people to process these animals, so what is going to happen? They will sit there.”
Britain’s meat-processing industry, which is two-thirds staffed by non-UK workers, is missing about 15% of its workforce of about 95,000 people usually employed in the sector, according to the industry body the British Meat Processors Association.
Many of the eastern European workers employed in meat-processing plants returned to their home countries during the coronavirus pandemic and have not come back.
Pig producers are calling on the government to provide “access to labour very quickly, however they decide to do it”, not only from the EU, Davies said. She added that training UK workers and young people to do the job would take time and not provide the immediate staffing required by the industry.
“It is access to skilled labour, wherever they are, and the ability to bring them in quickly, that is largely what businesses in the food production industry are asking for,” she said.
The meat-processing industry is calling for the government to consider options such as issuing short-term visas to deal with the labour shortage.
“What would be really helpful was if the government recognised there was a problem and sat down with industry,” said Nick Allen, the chief executive of the BMPA.
“We can offer up solutions such as a short-term visa or the shortage occupation list.
“There is not that interdepartmental joined-up thinking going on at the moment [in government]. The Home Office is in a different place to Defra. We find Defra understands that there is a problem and is receptive, then other departments, the Home Office in particular, have a different view of the problem and think there isn’t one.”
Earlier in the week, Tom Bradshaw, the vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, warned that there were “big issues with pigs backing up on farm”.
He said: “Slaughterhouses are only operating four days a week because they haven’t got enough butchers to process the pork. That is creating big backlogs on farm, which is very inefficient, you have to continue feeding those animals, they get bigger than they should do for the slaughterhouses and it creates big issues.”
The BPA is also warning that current pressures will lead to a “mass exodus” of pig farmers over the next 12 months, as producers reduce their numbers, retire or switch to farming other goods such as crops.