Today’s big question

‘A welfare disaster’: what’s happening to Britain’s pigs?

Boris Johnson heightens farmers’ fury with bacon sandwich comments

Britain’s farmers are struggling to manage a surplus of swine despite warnings that pigs in blankets may be missing from Christmas lunches this year.

An “exodus of eastern European workers” has led to labour shortages in abattoirs, with some “operating at as much as 20% below capacity”, Sky News said. As a result farms across the country have become “overcrowded” with livestock, and farmers may be “forced to cull” thousands of pigs. 

Pig farmers are “angry and distraught and extremely upset”, the president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Minette Batters, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, and many “are now fighting for survival”, said Reuters.

On Monday the National Pig Association’s chief executive, Zoe Davies, confirmed that culling had begun, with around 600 pigs having been killed. She believes mass culling “is the next stage in the process”.

In early September an estimated 85,000 extra pigs were on UK farms, “a number increasing by approximately 15,000 per week”, said Farming UK. By the end of the month, Batters warned that around 150,000 pigs could be culled as a result of the labour shortages. 

The prime minister’s apparent misunderstanding of farmers’ concerns has sparked further anger. 

Boris Johnson said that pigs dying “is what happens in this country”, when interviewed by Times Radio’s Tom Newton Dunn at the Conservative Party conference this week. “Have you ever had a bacon sandwich?” Johnson asked the journalist. “Those pigs, when you ate them, were not alive.”

The PM's comments came as farmers protested outside the Manchester Central convention centre. The prime minister “is a buffoon”, farmer Katie Morgan told Sky News.

EU rules, which are yet to be superseded by new UK legislation, state that meat that comes from animals killed outside of a slaughterhouse cannot be commercially sold in the UK without first being inspected by a licensed abattoir, meaning pork from any of the culled animals will go to waste.

“If he does not understand the difference between culling a pig in an abattoir and killing and incinerating a pig on-farm, which will not go into the food chain, I mean, we’ve got no hope have we,” said Morgan. 

The NFU’s Batters described the situation as a “welfare disaster”, and said she was “desperate to get the facts of this story to the prime minister”. She believed Johnson “didn’t look to be as well briefed as perhaps he should have been” on the matter at the party conference.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has said: “We understand the importance of seasonal labour and we are aware of the challenges that the pig industry has faced in recent months because of the Covid-19 pandemic and labour shortages, and Defra has been working closely with the pig and processing sectors during this time.” 

But Priti Patel, the home secretary, is “resisting” discussions about easing visa restrictions that could permit up to 1,000 butchers from overseas to fill vacancies in Britain’s abattoirs, The Times said.

Ministers have reportedly considered relaxing a stipulation that butchers, who are classed as skilled workers, speak a good level of English in order to encourage more overseas workers to apply to work in the UK.

But Patel is “concerned” that such a move could “erode Britain’s post-Brexit migration system”, the paper added. 

France has also warned it may limit the goods it sends to Britain in the coming months, and the meat industry has warned that there could be food shortages over the festive period. Although “there’s plenty of food out there”, the problem is that “we’ve got to get it on the shelves”, said Batters. 

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