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Pig Sector

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

Estimates of pig farm incomes were published in January. The sector’s profits have been particularly hit by feed price increases. The average commercial pig farm is expected to show a loss of income of around £4,100 for the period between March 2007 and February 2008. Pigmeat prices have risen steadily in 2008. If that continues, we expect to see a partial recovery in profitability over the next 12 months, although global harvests and feed prices remain a key factor.

The pig industry is entering a crisis that goes well beyond cyclical variations. Even with the improvements in prices, the pig farmer is losing an average of £12 for every pig, with losses for pig farmers this year likely to total £170 million and more than 50 per cent. of the national breeding herd lost. Given that, is there not something extraordinary about the fact that supermarket prices are going up, and the primary producers are not benefiting? Yet again, is there not something seriously wrong with the supply chain which the Government would do well to look into?

We do recognise the difficulties faced by the pig industry, and DEFRA works closely with the British Pig Executive. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Rooker attended a meeting this week. The pig industry has mounted a campaign, and I attended its conference in Norwich last week. I had a clear message for the supermarket suppliers, which attended the conference: they must take care of the primary producer. When Asda produces a pack of sausages for 16p, that does not help the primary producer. We must support the pig industry’s campaign. I am sure that all hon. Members will do so, because it produces a fine product and its animal welfare is good. We recognise that feed prices are an issue not just for British pig farmers, but for European pig farmers across the board, who also attended the conference. We are working closely with the industry and we hope to see prices increase. The hon. Gentleman makes his point about the primary producers well.

I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I attended the British Pig Executive emergency meeting in the House earlier this week to discuss this very matter. I realise that my hon. Friend is working hard on the issue, but may I encourage him to ensure that public procurement includes British pork and pigmeat products? I know that contracts have to be tendered, but if he could include animal welfare standards in the specifications, that would not only receive wide public support, but ensure that British pig farmers across the country reaped the benefit of the fine standards on their farms.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course we cannot restrict where people purchase their food from in public procurement, but we can put high welfare standards into the contracts. Many European countries will have high welfare standards, but I am sure that the British pig industry is confident that its standards will be as high as any other, if not higher.

Farmers were very pleased to see Lord Rooker at the meeting earlier this week. We all thank him for taking the trouble to attend, and we know that he takes the industry seriously. The Minister mentioned that it was not possible to restrict purchases, but it is possible to improve labelling. Since there is already a requirement for the country of origin to be labelled for fresh fruit, vegetables and beef, does he agree that there is no legal impediment to having the same for pork and pork products, and that that would bring a significant extra benefit for British farmers?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are seeing improvements in labelling. Supermarkets and independent stores are increasingly using the strength of local purchase. One can often see pictures of the farmer and the farm that the produce came from. That helps the consumer to make informed choices. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that new food information proposals have come forward from the European Community that, in the case of meat, would require the countries of birth, rearing and slaughter where these are not the same. I hope that those proposals will go some way towards addressing his concerns. The Food Standards Agency is consulting on the matter. I am sure that he and other hon. Members who are concerned about the pig industry, as well as the industry itself, will make a contribution to that consultation.

We have to support the pig industry, which has run an excellent campaign called “Stand By Your Ham”—perhaps hon. Members have seen the video, which is based on the Dolly Parton song and features leading members of the industry, including the fine gentleman Stewart Houston, chairman of the British Pig Executive. We do not want him to give up his day job and start singing—his singing is perhaps not up to Dolly Parton’s standards—but we do want him to continue leading the pig industry, which we need to support. We hope that we see better times this year and in years to come.

With the contraction of the British pig herd, more and more pork products are imported into this country, yet 70 per cent. of those imports are not up to the animal welfare standards that we expect in this country. If the Minister could do something meaningful for the pig industry in this country, it would be to ensure that pork is produced throughout Europe to the same high standards as in the UK.

We have led in Europe on welfare standards, and the industry will highlight that in encouraging people to purchase its products. At the conference that I attended in Norwich, we were joined not only by the supermarkets but by animal welfare organisations saluting the good work of the British pig industry, as well as by pig producers from other European countries. We want to ensure that there is a level playing field and that other countries catch up with our lead.