British meat producers have begun sending carcasses to the EU for butchering and then shipping the meat back to the UK, after post-Brexit staff shortages led to the culling of more than 10,000 healthy pigs.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said beef producers were shipping carcasses to Ireland for processing, before bringing the meat back to the UK, as a result of local shortages of butchers.
Pork producers were soon expected to start sending pigs to the Netherlands to be butchered in a similar process, he said, as they grappled to deal with staffing levels at least 15 per cent below the norm. Millions of pigs were expected to be processed this way, Allen said.
More than 10,000 healthy pigs, mostly piglets, had been culled after a backlog built up on farms, said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, while at least 1,800 more would be culled and rendered in the coming week.
Culling continues even though the government has agreed to issue 800 temporary visas for skilled overseas butchers to come for six months, since the time it takes to recruit the staff and process the visas means most butchers are not expected to arrive until late November or early December.
While expensive, butchering carcasses overseas is one way that processors have found to combat staff shortages. A drop in demand from China has worsened the backlog for farmers.
“[Farmers] are just about keeping their heads above water at the moment,” Allen said. “The backlog isn’t getting any worse, but it isn’t getting any better.”
Davies said farmers were “still stuck in limbo. They’re in a terrible place right now”. She said farmers were culling younger pigs because smaller animals are easier to dispose of and have received less investment from farmers, who also face fast-rising feed prices. Culled animals are rendered for cheap products such as lard and animal feed rather than entering the food chain.
Before the UK left the EU, many butchers entered from continental Europe under free movement rules.
In addition to agreeing to the additional visas for butchers, the government will also fund cold storage for carcasses, while the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has launched a cull and render scheme under which a plant will be dedicated to disposing of animals. Farmers must pay for this service, as they do with knackers, who have culled pigs so far.
Farmers and processors say the extra overseas butchers, allocated to four big meat processors, will help alleviate the immediate problem but will not provide a long-term solution.
Allen argued that lower than expected unemployment figures bolstered the industry’s case for further overseas hiring. Unemployment for the three months to August fell to 4.5 per cent, below the 5.2 per cent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent fiscal watchdog, which expects a “modest” rise to 5.25 per cent this winter.
Allen said processing in the EU might continue for the long term, depending on the impact of further UK import controls to be introduced in 2022.
The crisis has placed intense financial pressure on pig farmers. Davies said more were turning to so-called “bed and breakfast” contracts under which they raise pigs owned by processors. About half the sector, which produces more than 10m pigs a year, already works this way.
“We’ve seen an acceleration of that. It just means the big processors effectively take over the industry, and there will be very few independent farmers,” she said.
The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.