In the latest twist of the supply chain crisis hitting Britain in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, the government has said it is “working closely” with the pig industry to “address the pressures industry is currently facing”.
As with the petrol shortages, which saw the military mobilised to drive petrol tankers, ministers are now reportedly mulling relaxing visa rules for up to 1,000 foreign butchers.
The industry is short of some 15,000 workers, according to the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which has forced its members to just focus on keeping supermarkets stocked with basic cuts of meat.
While supermarket shelves are already missing some pork products which have been rationalised, the butchers shortage also risks causing animal welfare issues on farms as mounting numbers of livestock await slaughter, raising the prospect of an imminent cull of 150,000 pigs.
“We really should have been producing Christmas food from about June or July onwards this year and so far we haven’t, so there’ll be shortages of party foods and things like pigs in blankets. Anything that is labour-intensive work could see shortages,” a BMPA spokesperson told The Times.
The industry body warned as far back as mid-August that shortages of “the more complicated lines like pigs in blankets and gammon roasts” already looked “inevitable”, with many meat companies already six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules.
While Priti Patel, the home secretary, is reported to be against easing visa rules, the Home Office said it is “closely monitoring labour supply and working with sector leaders to understand how we can best ease particular pinch points”.
With butchers already classed as skilled workers under the UK’s immigration system, ministers have discussed relaxing the requirement for them to speak a good level of English, according to The Times, which quoted a government: “We’re not going to return to freedom of movement by incrementally adding every sector to points-based immigration.”
In addition to the 5,000 temporary visas to be issued to foreign HGV drivers, the government announced on Sunday it would also relax visa rules for 5,500 poultry workers, after the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) urged Boris Johnson to do so.
Calling for an urgent meeting with Ms Patel and immigration minister Kevin Foster, NFU president Minette Batters warned a cull of up to 150,000 pigs was “potentially a week, ten days away”.
“I do not feel anybody can preside over a welfare cull of healthy livestock. I don’t believe it has happened in the world before and it cannot happen now,” Ms Batters told the BBC.
Lizzie Wilson of the National Pig Association said the shortage of butchers meant processors were operating at 25 per cent reduced capacity, leaving “about 120,000 pigs sat on farm currently that should have already been slaughtered, butchered, be within the food chain and eaten by now”.
“It is getting to the point where we are saying to government if we don’t get some help soon we’re going to have to look at culling pigs on farm, because that’s our only option now,” she said, adding “there are some producers that have already had the conversation.”
Just weeks ago, the prime minister insisted “Christmas is on”, following concerns about the supply of turkeys. Ministers were forced to strike a deal using taxpayers’ money to pay the operating costs of a major US-owned fertiliser manufacturer to ensure the supply of CO2 for the food sector.
A spokesman for the Department For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We understand the importance of seasonal labour and we are aware of the challenges that the pig industry has faced in recent months because of the Covid-19 pandemic and labour shortages, and Defra has been working closely with the pig and processing sectors during this time.
“We are keeping the market under close review and continuing to work closely with the sector to explore options to address the pressures industry is currently facing.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Similar challenges are being faced by other countries around the world. We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad. Our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.
“The government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options wage increases and investment.”
While the Covid pandemic has exacerbated labour shortages, Brexit and new immigration rules have also played a role, with the British Poultry Council warning last year: “The great British Christmas cannot survive without access to non-UK labour.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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