'It is a deeply distressing time for the industry' - Charlie gives evidence to MP labour inquiry
1st Nov 2021 / By Alistair Driver
NPA senior policy adviser Charlie Dewhirst has set out to MPs what is happening in the pig sector and why action is needed to address long-term labour shortages.
Charlie began by explaning how the labour shortages in pork plants have left more and more animals stuck on the farm and unable to enter the food supply chain.
While COVID started being an issue this time last year, the industry managed to get through that phase.
"The difference over the last few months has been that this labour shortage, particularly in the skilled butchery sector, is acute," he said.
"There are no available skilled butchers. These particular roles are numbered in the hundreds, so it is not that many, but without them we cannot process the capacity we need to. The period from the sow being inseminated to the pig going to slaughter is around 10 months. It is not something you can turn off.
"We have a huge lag in the system, which means that solving the problem is not very easy to do overnight. The numbers have built by about 15,000 a week. We currently have more than 150,000 pigs on farms.
"Some farms have reached the point where there is no contingency left to stock those animals, and they have been culled in a welfare cull and have not entered the food chain. It has been and is a deeply distressing time for the industry, which is already struggling for a number of other reasons."
"It is not a uniform picture across the country, but over the last few months many farmers have got to the point where the contingencies are running out.
"Where stage 2 kicks in, and where unfortunately some farmers have got to already, is when they have run out of space and to try to avoid a wider-scale cull they have thinned out some of the animals - for instance, those that have been tail biting or are not so well - just to try to create that last little bit of space before they have to go for a much bigger number.
"There are over 150,000 animals on farms that should not be on farms. That is the number of animals that could end up being culled. We hope that it does not get anywhere near that. Around 8,000 have been reported to us (a figure that now stands at 10,000)."
He explained that the NPA is aware of 27,500 sows that have already gone out of production since this started this year, around 7% of the female breeding herd in the UK, which will start feeding through in about 10 months in terms of output.
"What will make up that 7%? Of course, it will be imported. Every time this happens, we get a contraction and we have to supplement that pork from elsewhere," he added.
Charlie said the NPA was 'very relieved' when the Government announced its support package for the industry, but stressed that it was 'really important' to ensure that Defra oversees the measures to make sure they are 'used properly' and that costs incurred 'are not sent to the bottom of the supply chain but are shared across the supply chain'.
The session also covered possible solutions to the labour shortages. "Agriculture in general is often seen as a low-paid job without career progression and it has been a challenge for decades to get people into the industry. It is certainly something that we all need to be taking forward in the longer term," Charlie said.