Country Matters Feb 2019

Ayreshire Pig Nose

By The Hodge

I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.’

                                                                                George Bernard Shaw

In this, the twenty first century, the consumer is king. We travel short distances to the chosen supermarket, buy pretty much everything in one go and return home again. The prices are keen with many special offers as each of the retail giants compete for your custom. It’s a win-win situation. At least, as far as the shopper is concerned.

But let us just consider the situation from the producer’s standpoint. In this example, I am looking at the farmer, not the mega company producing cereals or coffee or baked beans. And in specific, the pig farmer – he who gets the bacon rashers, crispy crackling, sumptuous sausages and tender belly pork onto our plates. You might think that he’s got everything going for him. Consumption of pork and chicken increases year-on-year while beef and lamb struggle. Part of the reason for this is price – pork and chicken are cheap – we can afford to put some in our trolley but pause when we look at the price of a leg of lamb or a couple of prime steaks.

The reason pork and chicken are cheap is several-fold. Firstly, unlike cows and sheep, pigs and chickens can be farmed intensively in buildings. They both reproduce quickly and in much larger numbers than the others – a pig can easily rear 24 young in a year compared with the cow’s single calf or triplet lambs from a ewe. The intensively farmed pig can be ready to be processed into meat by 18 weeks of age or even earlier.

And, as has been pointed out before, supermarkets have enormous buying power. Farmer Giles has his pigs ready this week – the right age, weight and specification. If he doesn’t like the price offered, what can he do? Once past its prime, the pig’s value starts to drop so he can either sell at the price today or hope it might increase more than the deductions he will be charged for the less than perfect pig next week. All the investment in cost up to that point has been the farmer’s and in order to stay in business, he must recoup that as quickly as possible.

Prices paid by the supermarkets are recorded and published online by a quango called AHDB and anyone can access them. In the week ending the 18th January, the UK Spec price as it is known was £1.5946 per kilo deadweight. (Deadweight is the weight after slaughter with blood and internal organs removed). So, a pig meeting the criteria and weighing 100kgs could be expected to earn the farmer, £159.46. Now, you might think that’s not a bad return. After all, the producer has only had to house and feed the animal for four and a half months. The cereal-based feed with added vitamins, minerals and proteins is bought in from specialist producers and is not cheap. The chances are that labour will be employed and that the buildings will be heated and quite high tech in order for the growth rates to be maintained.

The price received by the farmer in 1996, was down at £1.102 per kg so progress has been made. However, if you apply the Bank of England inflation multiplier, that equates to a current price of £2.0839/kg. Over 20% up on today’s price. In 2009, it was the equivalent of £1.9346. So, today’s pig prices are rubbish and it is not surprising that around half the pig meat consumed in this country is imported. Up to October, nearly 770,000 tonnes came into Britain in 2019.

Britain’s farmers can’t compete. It’s not that they’re inefficient but the supermarkets using pig meat to attract buyers through their doors are leaving farmers in a loss-making scenario. Do we really want to end up in a situation where 100% of our pork and bacon comes from abroad? Where animal welfare standards may be lower and not so well policed?

So, what is the answer? I could ask you to avoid the supermarkets altogether, but I know I’d just be wasting ink. There are some good – genuine – farm shops around that produce their own rare breed pigs such as Butts Farm and The Organic Farm Shop. So, maybe just once a month or so, visit one of these, spend a little more and experience the eating quality of pedigree animals raised naturally. You’ll enjoy your meals more and feel better about animal welfare and you’ll be doing a little bit for the environment too.

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