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|Pig farmers warn of desperate times
By BBC Environment Correspondent Robert Pigott
British pigs farmers are to warn MPs on the House of Commons Agriculture Committee that their industry faces an unprecedented crisis. Pig producers are losing £6m every week and they say it is largely because they are having to produce pork to a higher standard than their competitors overseas.
The few weeks before Christmas are usually the most profitable time for pig farmers, as demand for ham and gammon reaches an annual peak. But this year farmers are receiving barely two-thirds as much for their pigs as they cost to produce.
Paul Cheale, who owns an abattoir in Essex, specialises in killing sows. There is usually a healthy demand for the meat from German sausage producers, but this year he says chronic over-production has kept prices ruinously low.
Each of the carcasses hanging in his cold room represents a loss of between £15 and £20 to the farmer.
"A number of farmers can't afford to feed their herds," says Mr Cheale. "Unfortunately herds are coming in, with sows in pig. They can't afford to keep them. Every day that passes they lose more money."
Worse still, with the sows go farmers' hopes of restocking their farms. Paul Cheale: "They can't afford to keep their animals'".
Mr Cheale describes farmers' plight as tragic. "Many have their whole life's work threatened by the present situation, which is something I've never seen in 40 years of meat wholesaling."
The trouble is that British pig farmers are struggling to compete in an over-supplied market. Legislation coming into force next month will make it illegal for British pigs to be kept in stalls or on tethers.
But while British pigs enjoy some of the best conditions anywhere, they are costing more to produce.
Steven Green, a pig farmer in Essex, says: "We've gone to great expense to build up our standards which we feel are not being followed in parts of Europe. Their pig meat is coming in, plus the strength of the pound is giving them an advantage, and we're being crucified in the UK at the moment".
MPs on the Commons Agriculture Committee will be told by pig producers that they must have more to show for the £250m they have been forced to invest in higher standards of animal welfare.
They want the government to pay the cost of disposing of offal and to put pressure on retailers to insist on the same standards of production in imported meat that they get from British farmers.
On 12 August, thousands of farmers converged on Immingham docks on the Humber to protest at the amount of cheap pork and bacon that is coming into the country. Four months later, they say the crisis in their industry is deeper than ever.
The pig business has historically been one of boom and bust - but farmers say that by the end of this crisis much of the British industry could have disappeared.
We need one voice for the British pig industry
Pig producers' plight was highlighted by senior members of British Pig Industry Support Group, North Yorkshire farmers Stewart Houston and John Rowbottom.
They urged Government to ensure retailers, processors and caterers supported British farmers by agreeing to sell only meat which complied with Britain's strict animal welfare rules.
As highlighted in a Yorkshire Post campaign, Britain's pig farmers were producing what was widely-regarded as the best meat in the world but were being brought to their knees by supermarkets selling inferior foreign meat from animals reared in lower-welfare conditions which would be considered illegal in Britain.
Speaking before the meeting, BPISG chairman Stewart Houston said his aims were to persuade shops to sell British pork, bacon, ham, pies and sausages and to extend that to the catering sector; to promote clear labelling; and to promote the need for one voice for the pig industry.
"We will have an hour to state our case to the committee. We are going to give short presentations on how the crisis is affecting our individual farms.
"It follows a meeting I had with my MP, David Curry, last week where he suggested that nitty-gritty information is what they want to hear — real grass-roots stuff from the horse's mouth."
"I think we have all got to start being more positive and optimistic. If we get a good hearing, it will be yet another pressure for the retailers and caterers to back British."
Minister was 'completely negative'
"I can't believe it. Everything Geoff Rooker said was completely negative. He didn't seem to know very much about the pig industry and it was quite plain he didn't want to know. His whole demeanour and tone were very unsympathetic" — John Rowbottom, BPISG
Rooker rules out aid
Want to stop us slagging you off? Commit now to the United Kingdom specification
"What really gets up farmers' noses is the way practically all supermarkets send out sanctimonious messages about food quality, food assurance and food traceability, and then go and buy the cheapest stuff they can find from abroad.
"They are at last getting the message but they still have a long way to go. If they had any sense they would make a clear and firm commitment now to the United Kingdom specification and spare themselves further damaging publicity."
BPISG seeks an insider in every plant
"It all depends on whether everybody keeps their word and that includes the companies supplying the supermarkets as well as the supermarkets themselves. We are under no illusions that we have a difficult policing role over the next few months.
"We will be looking to have an 'insider' in every pig processing plant in the country to keep us informed about the source of pigmeat used."
British pig farmers fighting the worst crisis in their industry in more than 60 years lost £100m in the last six months of last year.
And the crisis deepened as 1998 drew to a close. In December alone the losses were put at £23m.
Prices have dropped dramatically. From a high point of 132.87p per kilo in December 1995 they dropped annually to 114.65p in 1996, about 90p in 1997 and 68.99p at the end of 1998.
British Pig Association chairman John Godfrey said prices would not begin to get significantly better until July, by which point many more small business would have gone under as the crisis continued.
"We have now reached the bottom as far as prices are concerned. They should now slowly increase until most pig producers start to make profits in about July.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel but the month of July is only an estimate. We may yet have to push that back further. I think there will be a lot of farmers who will go under before then."
Mr Godfrey believes prices will need to reach about 90p per kilo for British producers to begin a recovery.
Make no mistake... our
East Anglian branch of British Pig Industry Support Group marched through Harleston behind John Harvey's construction of a caged 'Annabel', to picket Budgens. Key player in the east (and indispensible link with BPISG in the north) was Ian Campbell, who recently unearthed one of the 'Free Annabel' sweaters and was prevailed upon to model it for this page. The intervening two decades have taken their toll and he's considerably more decrepit now, as the picture above illustrates. But he remains clear: British pig farmers' cause was righteous and their militancy was wholly justified.
(And it did)
|'Practically every pig farmer in the country will be on our London march next month'
I cannot begin to tell you how heartened the farming community has been by your Save Our Farmers campaign. I am impressed by the way the supermarkets have responded to your challenge to come clean on their sourcing policies. While we have not always liked their replies we do appreciate that many have taken the time to answer honestly and in full.
Several have taken a step in the right direction towards genuinely supporting superior British food and our task now is robustly to persuade them to strengthen their commitment. We will be doing this on January 20, when practically every pig farmer in the country will be at the British Pig Industry Support Group's march in London.
We are particularly pleased by the news which has reached us this week that one leading supermarket [M&S] is about to take the decision to ban all brand-name pork products that fail to comply with the superior United Kingdom specification, as laid down by Parliament. This is a major breakthrough.
It means that not only their own label pork, bacon, ham, sausages and pies will come from pigs that haven't been kept in stalls or fed meat-and-bonemeal — but customers will be able to rest assured that any household brand names on sale in their stores will also be produced to the same high specification.
Digby Scott, December 1998
Unlike most of their foreign counterparts British pig farmers do not feed their pigs meat-and-bonemeal, do not confine their sows in small cages, known as stalls, and do not castrate young male pigs.
|We must persuade these supermarket supertankers to change direction
"Persuading supermarkets to change their buying policies is as difficult as getting a supertanker to change course ... but it makes sound commercial sense to source pigmeat to British quality, which is universally recognised as being superior to anything the rest of the world produces."
for London march
Thousands of pig farmers will descend on Whitehall by specially chartered trains and buses later this month to demand better treatment from some of the country's supermarkets. The mass protest on Saturday January 23 will also demand Government departments stop buying cheap imported pork and bacon for its canteens.