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These pages are extended most days. Over the coming months they will
build into a history of why the National Pig Association was founded

Click each image for a high-resolution view of the full article
NPA history

NPA was formed as the British pig industry's single voice in a turbulent era of market failure, rampant disease, retailer duplicity, political infamy and a dysfunctional levy-board. It has proved hugely successful, in most respects, at changing the landscape.

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Above: How they used to behave. But BPISG and Farmers For Action brought them to heel. Tesco is a gentle giant these days, comparatively.

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Above: BPISG's on-pack supermarket stickering campaign.

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...and they didn't.

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Vicky Scott, for Yorkshire Television.

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Part conference time... and BPISG took a sow and crate to Blackpool.

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Supermarkets dictated
price and purchasing
policy, because they
could. And we evened the odds by shutting down regional distribution centres, because we could

ColonelBy The Colonel
December 2017

An activity that characterised and defined the desperation and anger of the pig industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was a primary raison d'etre of British Pig Industry Support Group, was the regular shutting down of transport movements in and out of the major retailers' regional distribution centres on Thursday nights.

So, was this militant action justified? Did it have a purpose other than venting anger and frustration?

Maybe this is best answered with another question.

Was the behaviour and duplicity of many of the retailers justified, and was there any alternative to redress the balance of power between a handful of oligopolistic supermarkets on the one hand, and a few thousand small, family pig-producing businesses on the other?

The behaviour of most retailers, with one or two notable exceptions, was appalling. They clearly reneged on commitments to support British welfare standards — standards they insisted on from their British suppliers.

Instead, they shipped in foreign lower-welfare pork but then, realising the importance of British provenance to their sales, they proceeded to use grossly and deliberately misleading labels to con their customers into thinking they were buying British when in fact it was nothing of the sort.

British pig producers were furious.

BPISG hit back. Hard, frequent and unremitting. Regularly shutting down regional distribution centres on Thursday nights – the night when most goods were trans-shipped for the high volume Friday and Saturday shopping days.

This wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction to kick back. There was a clear purpose. Despite more conventional attempts to enter into negotiation with retailers over sourcing policy for pork and pork products, official industry leaders had little joy.

The retailers were firmly in the driving seat and didn't need to talk if they didn't want to talk. Either that or they arranged the talks with people who usually had little or no authority to make a difference. Industry leaders were rig-welted.

And so it was left to BPISG to persuade the retailers they really ought to engage in meaningful dialogue. And engage they did. And not at buyer level but usually at director level and on several occasions at chief executive level.

Foul language

The names of those retailer executives will remain quite clear to those involved in the negotiations, even today.

PicIndeed one particular 'big four' director used language so foul during initial discussions at around midnight that I walked out of the discussions telling police I would not talk to someone who was clearly a bully and used to getting his own way and that the regional distribution centre would remain blockaded until such time as she calmed down. At around 3am discussions resumed, progress was made, BPISG troops made their way home and wagons started to roll.

Such discussions usually took place in the early hours of a Friday morning. Occasionally the chosen retailer would refuse to talk but almost invariably changed its tune when told quite unequivocally that their regional distribution centre would be shut down again on the Friday night. BPISG could and it would.

We were all in it together

This activity was not just confined to producers. The allied industries put their full weight behind the campaign usually with the full, albeit discreet, support of their senior management. We were all in it together.

Indeed two of the biggest stalwarts were Chris Brant and John Cusson. For which they were awarded the Pig Industry Service Award in 2000. This award was renamed the Chris Brant Award after Chris's untimely death in 2009 and in recognition of all he and John Cusson did for the industry.

Chris is often quoted as being straight-talking. Well he certainly was but not always in a constructive way. When he stood outside Tesco at York appealing to a (quite large) young woman to buy British pork, he was told by the woman in no uncertain terms that she was a vegetarian.

"How did you get so fat, just eating tomatoes and lettuce?" retorted an incredulous Chris. Hopelessly un-PC. But passions were running high.

Was the action justified?

It's ironic, but it justifies our tactics, that the hotel where the National Pig Awards take place, the Royal Lancaster, was also the scene of a BPISG demonstration, as delegates arrived for the annual Institute of Grocery Distribution conference.

The direct result of that single demonstration was that BPISG and NPA delegates were invited inside to sit down and talk with the chief executive of one of the big-four retailers of the day.

The result of those talks? A commitment to stock only British pork. A commitment that was worth a penny a kilo on British pork across the board, according to some number-crunching by the late John Godfrey.

It became known as the 'Morrisons penny', and as far as I know the commitment holds good today.

David-and-Goliath odds

PicWas the action justified?

Just as the supermarkets dictated price and purchasing policy because they could, so too BPISG in order to even the David-and-Goliath odds, shut down the regional distribution centres, because they could.

Without doubt the police could have stepped in mob-handed and broken up the demonstrations. Yet as soon as they knew what we wanted — simply to talk to someone in authority and with executive capacity — they usually kept a watching brief until such time as a supermarket executive decided it would probably be in everybody's best interests if he engaged in a discussion.

Admittedly there were occasions when some police forces became a tad over-exuberant but by and large they couldn't be faulted

Did we enjoy what we were doing? No. It was a means to an end. Who enjoys driving 80 miles or more and standing out in the freezing cold until the early hours of a Friday morning, to protect a legitimate way of making a living.

That said, friendships were formed during those long dark and often cold nights. Those friendships would go on to last a lifetime. Friendships borne out of adversity, usually do.

So, was the action justified?

Folk were desperate. They were going bust. They were cashing in pensions. Families were under constant strain. People from all parts of the industry suddenly found themselves cast in the role of counsellor and part of an absolutely critical support network — supporting hundreds of people who were at their wits' end.

Admittedly this desperation was not just because of retailer duplicity but a combination of factors, amongst them a weak pound and a weak European pig market.

But, whereas cyclical pig markets and vagaries of currency are part and parcel of pig farming, the deliberately cynical and destructive behaviour by some retailers should not have been. And on top of market factors, it was the final straw for most. 

  • Would the use of misleading labelling have been curtailed?

  • Would British pork carry such a premium?

  • Indeed, would the whole concept of a level playing and the importance and value of buying British be where they are today?

It's all down to those long, cold hours spent outside regional distribution centres by all those pig producers, their families and allied trades. Many are no longer in the industry, some are no longer with us. And all of were scarred by the whole bitter experience.

PicYet despite being scarred there can be no doubt that without the fight the British pig industry of today would not be as united, resilient and such a plain friendly place to be.

Of course, there were those who disagreed with the action that BPISG took. And in hindsight and with the passage of time it is possible others now may look back and question whether such action was really necessary. Such views are wrong.

Action was necessary. Action was justified. Action brought about change for the better.

And BPISG action was not just limited to shutting down regional distribution centres. Government was targeted repeatedly, and exactly the same principles applied. Official industry leaders were having difficulty in getting meaningful discussions with Government and so BPISG stepped in and kicked open some doors.

This involved travelling to the Wallsend constituency of agriculture minister Nick Brown, to convince him to talk. The first visit proved unfruitful as he had clearly been tipped-off and had departed his constituency meeting in Wallsend Town Hall early.

The next visit looked also as if we had been sussed with the Town Hall empty. But then a cry went up, "There he is". And indeed there Nick Brown was, running out of a side entrance and jumping into a waiting car.

Bonnet-surfing at Wallsend

But the car was moving off, so it looked as if we had once again been thwarted. Until, that is, one Johnny Piercy hurled himself onto the bonnet screaming "He's stolen my car" to police watching nearby.

The ministerial car could do no other than stop which gave BPISG negotiators chance to speak to the Minister. The outcome was that industry suits were subsequently given an opportunity to sit down and talk through the issues with Mr Brown at John Rowbottom's farm in the old World War 2 ops room at Melbourne airfield, known affectionately by us all as "The Bunker".

Interestingly, Mr Brown took all this in good humour and I am still on talking terms with him. Indeed many years later when a group of us were showing the then new minister, Jane Kennedy, round a farm, I could see she kept looking at her watch.

I enquired why, and she explained that she had to be back in the House for a vote. I suggested she text Mr Brown, who by then was Chief Whip, and tell him ,"I am held up with Mr Longthorp. He says you will understand". A text immediately pinged back from Mr Brown "Oh. Yes. I do understand."

The regional distribution centre shutdowns, indeed all BPISG activity, were not just random events. They were carefully planned by a small group of producers and allied trades.

This planning usually took place at The Bunker, where potential targets and activities were discussed.

On our outings, barbecues burned, food was served, camaraderie was abundant. But "enjoy" would be a stretch. What's to enjoy when you're haemorrhaging cash and standing in the rain on a bleak industrial estate in the chilly early hours?

Colonel

They were interesting days...

Colonel

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