'CRIPPLING LABOUR shortages' have hit UK pork production, prompting a call for government action to avert a 'major crisis' in the pig sector.

The National Pig Association issued a warning that staff shortages are leading to backlogs on farms and gaps on supermarket shelves.

The association has been told that major pork processors are cutting throughput, some by up to 25%, meaning producers are once again having to keep pigs on farm for longer than would usually be the case. More than 100,000 pigs were backed up on farm in the early months of 2021, resulting in higher feed prices and overweight penalties for producers, plus major logistical difficulties and potential welfare issues.

The shortage of workers is being driven by a combination of the new stricter rules on EU workers coming to the UK post-Brexit, furlough, the expansion of jobs in other sectors and the ‘pingdemic’ that has resulted in more than 600,000 people per week being told to isolate by the NHS Test and Trace app.

Long before Covid-related absences, pork processing plants had been reporting absenteeism of 10 to 16%. The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said this figure is now increased by a further 5 to 10% of staff that are self-isolating, in some cases.

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “In some plants, it is reaching critical stage, with production being cut by a quarter and pigs being ‘rolled’ into the following week, meaning backlogs are starting to build on farms.

“We are hearing that this is not just a short-term issue resulting from Covid self-isolation. EU staff have gone home and are not coming back or have gone to find alternative employment.

“If this continues, it will only be a matter of weeks before we see serious problems on farms," she warned. “The frustration is that demand for British pork is currently strong, but pork plants are struggling to meet it because they do not have enough people to do the work.

“This will lead to empty retail shelves, which is likely to result in more imports at a time when consumers are seeking great British pork more than ever before.”

The UK Government has promised that key workers from certain sectors will not have to self-isolate after close contact with positive cases, but the industry is still waiting for a definitive list.

The NPA, along with other industry bodies has been pressing the Government to take steps to alleviate the shortages, but say that so far these calls have fallen on 'deaf ears': “The Government is aware of the severity of the problem but appears unwilling to act,” Dr Davies continued.

"The entire pig sector is very close to crisis point and we need urgent and clear action from Government to address this crippling labour shortage."

The NPA is now encouraging its members to write to their MPs with a list of asks to be put to ministers, including:-

• Call for processing and pig farm staff who have been double vaccinated to be allowed to take a daily test and avoid self-isolation as long as the test proves negative;

• Providing businesses access to EU seasonal workers from the EU as allowed in the horticulture, fruit and poultry sectors. A temporary relaxation of visa rules for specific roles to allow more foreign labour into the UK would help;

• The Home Office to add meat processing workers and butchers to the Shortage Occupation List;

• Determine which of the approximately 1.5 million furloughed workers may be suitable for employment in the food sector, and then help them get back work as soon as possible;

• A compensation package from Defra for those in the industry most heavily impacted by this on-going crisis.