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Culling of Pigs

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 14 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent the culling of pigs resulting from the shortage of workers in meat processing plants.

My Lords, we are working closely with the pig sector in response to the backlog of pigs, to both minimise on-farm culling and tackle the shortage of butchers in the processing sector. We are working with processors to increase processing throughput and the recruitment of domestic workers. We continue to engage in discussions with retailers and the food service sector and are working with the AHDB to reactivate the Chinese market and to identify other export markets.

I thank the Minister, but I wonder whether he has read the editorial in Pig World that landed on my desk this morning. It says:

“The pig industry is deep in crisis and the government doesn’t care. So we are on our own, although given the arrogance and incompetence of this administration, led by a complete fool who has no right to be anywhere near that office, or indeed any office for that matter, that is probably not a bad thing.”

The fact is that 150,000 pigs are unable to be slaughtered for consumption, and already farmers have had to cull and destroy more than 6,000 healthy pigs. So, talking is great, but when will the Government provide those temporary visas and the lower language requirements for skilled butchers which lie at the root of this crisis?

I can tell the noble Baroness that we care deeply about this sector, the people who work in it and the welfare of the animals concerned, and we want nothing more than to smooth out the perfect storm of a variety of different issues that have brought this to a head at this particular time. I had hoped to be able to come to the House with an announcement: it is imminent and I think the noble Baroness will be pleased with the hard work that Ministers and officials have put in to show that we do care and we want this industry to get back on its feet.

My Lords, this is another post-Brexit immigration failure, as abattoirs face financial and staffing difficulties alongside producers looking to leave the sector altogether. If the Government do not step in, British pig farming could cease altogether. To prevent abattoirs from closure and to protect the long-term future of the British pig farming industry, the Government must act. So, will the Minister guarantee that everyone who wants their pigs in blankets this Christmas will be able to get them? If he cannot guarantee it, will he come in January and apologise to those who have not received them?

I can assure the noble Lord that we are taking action on a range of issues, which we hope will resolve the problem in the coming weeks. We are working with AHDB to identify export markets to fill the gap of the 21% of exports that are no longer available to the Chinese market because they withdrew licences because of Covid. He is right to point to the labour issues. These are principally because, at the end of the Covid restrictions, many overseas workers returned home and we are seeking to find ways to bring large numbers of them back. There is a deficit of between 800 and 1,000 butchers which we want to fill. There are many other things we are working on to ensure the mainstream supply of pigmeat, including, of course, for Christmas.

My Lords, it is heartbreaking to raise stock from piglets to fully grown pigs ready for slaughter and the supermarket shelves, only to have to cull them on farm and waste their meat. An influx of skilled workers from abroad could alleviate this situation. What is the Minister doing to lower the English language requirement for meat processing workers, who clearly do not need the same level of fluency as a GP?

That is a very valid point. Part of our discussions and the announcement that I hope we will be able to make imminently reflects what is also done in the poultry industry, where those changes were made to encourage more workers to come over and operate in that sector. We hope that this will alleviate the labour problems in this sector.

My Lords, will the Minister consider inviting the Prime Minister and other Ministers who perhaps do not understand the difference between the culling business and the slaughtering business to go and work for a week in a slaughterhouse, with a slaughterhouse worker’s pay, to try to understand the differences between them?

It is really important that we address the worker shortage right across the supply chain. The Agriculture Act allows us to intervene where we feel that retailers or any part in the supply chain are acting unfairly. This is another area we are looking at. It is important that we have the right people working in abattoirs, and indeed the processing industry, and that they are well rewarded for doing so. This is a vibrant marketplace for a type of meat that people want to eat and, as I say, it is suffering from a perfect storm of three or four different issues. We are trying to resolve this, including the very important point the noble Lord raised.

My Lords, the presence of official veterinarians is essential for the proper working of abattoirs. Historically, approximately 95% of our official veterinarians have come from outwith the UK, mainly from the EU. To what extent are our current problems in meat processing plants due to a shortage of official veterinarians, and what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to avert such a shortage now or in the future?

The noble Lord is very experienced in this field, and he was himself involved in the development of a new veterinary school with Harper Adams. That is just part of what this Government are doing to increase capacity in this sector. I talk almost daily with the FSA on this and related issues. It has not specifically raised the issue of a shortage of official vets in the abattoir sector. Nevertheless, as we get through the Covid crisis and the impact it has had on overseas workers, it is important that we address this sector as well.

I am very pleased to hear that there will be an imminent announcement, because the Government’s response—including the Prime Minister’s—to this crisis has been pretty hopeless so far, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, it has been catastrophic to many pig farmers already because the Government have taken so long to act. What are the Government’s projections as to the impact on the pig industry? How many farmers will go down because of this crisis? Will this lead to foreign imports bred to lower animal standards?

Roughly 30% of the pigmeat eaten in this country is imported. Most of what we export are cuts not eaten in this country, and there is a complex supply chain to service both of those things. We want to increase the amount of pigmeat produced and eaten here, and there is a lot of work going on on that front. But I assure the noble Baroness that we are talking daily to the National Pig Association, the British Meat Processors Association and the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers to make sure that the current difficulties are ironed out and that many working in this sector can remain in it and be supported through a variety of other encouragements that we are using to improve and give them a long-term future in the agricultural sector.

My Lords, over recent days, a succession of government Ministers have told us how much they value Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. As a unionist, I warmly welcome that. However, almost a month ago, Mr Victor Chestnutt, the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, warned publicly that the Province’s pig farmers may have to start culling their animals because of labour shortages. What contacts have the Minister or his officials had in the intervening weeks with the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Farmers’ Union to help address this perilous situation in Northern Ireland?

I know that my colleague Victoria Prentis, the Minister responsible for this area, has had frequent conversations with all the devolved Governments on these issues. I am not certain when she last spoke to the individual the noble Lord mentioned, but it is vital that we look at this problem not just within the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. This is an issue that runs right across the union, and we want to make sure that we are protecting pig farmers everywhere.

It was good to hear the Minister acknowledge the distressing situation, however predictable it is, and I hope that his colleagues in government will follow suit and acknowledge the sheer stress that has been caused. As we have heard, thousands of healthy pigs have already been culled as a result of overcrowding on farms due to the lack of skilled labour—I stress the skilled element of that—in our abattoirs and meat processing plants. Let us be clear: these animals have been taken out of the food chain. Healthy animals and meat are going into the bin, causing huge emotional and economic damage to our farmers. I pay tribute to the eloquent and dignified ways in which pig farmers have responded, particularly those from East Yorkshire, where one farm has seen the number of pigs leaving for processing drop by 25%, and probably more, in 11 weeks. Picking up on rumours in the media today about more temporary visas being offered, do the Government expect a better response than we have seen so far in the HGV sector?

As somebody who has been involved in stock farming and the agricultural community all my life, I entirely endorse what the noble Baroness says about the distressing situation of seeing animals that farmers have reared for a quality product being put into the rendering market. That is a tragedy for those concerned, and we want to make sure that it stops. That is why we are looking at a range of issues, one of which absolutely addresses the point she raises about the need to bring in skilled workers to the butchery industry and to work in abattoirs.