BY JIM WEBSTER
I kept a few pigs before the last foot and mouth outbreak. I used to buy a weaned litter or two and fatten them on a mix of spare milk and some 16% protein dairy feed. This is grossly inefficient but was quite profitable because I was having them killed at a local abattoir. Then they were cut up for me by an excellent local butcher who always bought a couple of them. Then the rest were sold direct to consumers (or very rarely the hotel trade). But the more who went to the consumer direct the better. They left a profit as opposed to just sort of covering their costs.
The problem is that the pig industry is really efficient. The major retailers got their teeth into it a lot of years ago and have bled the profit out of it. Back in 1971, loin with bone was 77p a kilo. Now it is apparently £6.08 per kilo. But if we allow for inflation, it should be £11.13 a kilo.
Bleeding this sort of money out of an industry has knock on effects. The farmers producing the product have to get bigger, ‘more industrial’ and leaner. The abattoirs have to get more efficient and cut costs. Those in between who haul pigs or pork about have to trim costs too. One part of that cost cutting is wages. Given the level of hygiene and welfare inspection we have in this country, designed to keep standards up, wages is one of the few areas where you can cut costs. Everybody in the chain, from the person who feeds the pigs through to the person who cuts them up for distribution, ends up being paid less. But if you import cheap labour, it’s possible to push down the wages of your fellow citizens. But it’s worth it, the consumer will get cheap pork which allows them to spend more of their income on the fun stuff, rather than food. I remember going round an abattoir in the early 1970s. Everybody working there was from ‘the United Kingdom or Ireland.’ I went into an abattoir in about 2010 to sort problems. All the notices were in Afrikaans and Polish and the only ‘native English speakers’ were the ladies in the office.
And now the system is starting to unravel. There isn’t the cheap labour. We have a population who rather expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. There’s also the problem of job satisfaction. Heaven help us if the labouring classes expect to feel fulfilled and valued at work.
It’s interesting that this isn’t just a UK phenomenon. I was listening to BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning when I was in the car. They sent a reporter to Romania to see if Romanian lorry drivers wanted to come and work in the UK. What they were told is that Romania has a shortage of drivers and they’re trying to recruit in Vietnam and Pakistan. And why weren’t Romanians coming to the UK? They admitted the money was starting to look good, but the hours were long, the working conditions poor, and they wanted to see their families. For owner drivers they also commented that the increased bureaucracy on the frontiers meant delays and they weren’t paid for the time they spend sitting waiting for paperwork to arrive.
But stepping back a little, the pig industry in Europe generally is taking a kicking. Reuters reported that Germans are eating less pork. Then there was a big loss of sales due to a poor summer meaning a poor barbecue season. Then coronavirus restrictions hit restaurant sales. On top of it all, there have been major import bans after African Swine Fever was found in Germany.
Julia Kloeckner, the German agriculture minister was quoted as saying “The economic situation of farms is dramatic. We have extremely low prices for pigs and piglets which you cannot make a living from.”
Apparently Germany has about 260,000 tonnes of unsold pork, German pig prices are around 1.25 euros a kilo, which is down from 1.42 euros in July and 1.47 euros before the first case of ASF was discovered in Germany in September 2020.
African Swine Fever is perhaps a bigger threat to our pig industry than a labour shortage. In Germany, the number of confirmed outbreaks in the wild boar population has reached 2,096. Poland has had over a hundred confirmed outbreaks of ASF in domestic pig herds (transmitted from wild boar which carry the disease) This year, ten European countries have registered ASF outbreaks in domestic pig herds, and the wild boar of much of Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany, Slovakia, Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Estonia.) now carry the disease.
For the UK, nobody really knows how many wild boar we have. Estimates vary between a very outdated 500, and a more current figure of 4,000. Estimates very rapidly go out of date. Forestry England produced the following figures for Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean:
Given that we no longer have ‘free movement’ there is a hope that we might be able to keep African Swine Fever out of the UK. So far the UK has managed to avoid the disease. We’ve never had it. But it’s a virus and can be carried by people on their shoes or clothing. It can be transported in meat that has been illegally imported, and to keep it out we need proper biosecurity at our ports of entry. To be fair, given the priority government has given to this area since the 2001 FMD outbreak, we’re probably screwed.
But seriously, if people think the pig industry is in trouble at the moment, it’s a walk in the park compared to what happens if we get African Swine Fever in our wild boar population.
To be fair, the wild boar problem has a solution. Have you ever tasted wild boar and apple sausages? They are fabulous.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.