British pig farmers are being forced out of the market or to cull livestock as the price of producing pork continues to rise.
Following a number of media reports into the rise of cost in petrol, feed for the pigs and the decreased profits for farmers thanks to pressure from the supermarkets, the Huffington Post UK has found the decreasing number of farmers could also impact on the price of your bacon, sausages and ham from next year.
Stephen Thompson, owner of Moss Valley farm in Sheffield, told Huff Post UK that the number of pig farmers falling out of the market was increasing rapidly, driven in part by price of pig feed.
"Lots of farmers are going out of business - it used to be that in the UK we produced 110% of pig meat used here; now that figure is 40%, with the remainder coming from Europe," he said.
"And people are already talking about the price of pork going up again after Christmas."
The poor harvests across the globe have contributed to the cost of pig feed increasing
Thompson said the hike crop feed prices wasn't unexpected however - the increase in feed prices, while not helped by a poor year's harvest across the US, Russia and Europe, is part of a long-term trend.
He instead parks the blame with the UK's supermarkets - by driving down the price they are willing to pay farmers, it's left many with no choice but to run at a loss or go out of business, he says.
"There is supposed to be a farming ombudsman coming, but we need something now with a lot more clout," Thompson said.
"We can't keep putting our food into the hands of these profiteers."
Retailers are also concerned about the drop in UK pig suppliers; Mark Gevaux, known as The Ribman in London after his streetfood stall, told Huff Post UK he knew of pig farmers who had been forced to "jack in" their jobs.
"These are not easy decisions, often they're from generations of pig farmers, but there's just no money in it for them any more," he said.
"The food prices aren't going to come down - I spoke to one wholesaler who's been in the industry for 60 years and he said he's never seen anything like this."
And Gevaux is extremely worried about the future of his business. "I only use racks of ribs (in my products), each pig has two and I serve between 300 and 400 a day," he said.
"If there's a shortage in pigs due to the lack of farmers and livestock, this would seriously affect me; it might even put me out of business."
British pig farmers say they are having to cull more of their herds
Figures from a recent survey of pig producers by the British Pig Executive make for gloomy reading too: Pig producers representing more than 70% of Britain’s weekly output of pigs will cease production within the next 12 months unless prices, rise and/or feed costs fall, to stop current losses.
More worrying, 10% of national pig producers believe they will have to start culling their sows by Christmas, or sooner.
More than 12,000 have already been culled since June, representing about 4-5% of the national number of pigs.
Why are pig farmers quitting?
The price of pig feed has rocketed in the past few years, driven by poor harvests and traders on the money markets.
Wheat and soya, two of the main ingredients for pig feed have almost doubled; Lee Frost, a butcher from WH Frost in Cheshire said the price of soya had increased from £280 a tonne in 2011 to £500 a tonne today.
UK regulations banning the use of sow stalls - an intensive method of farming pigs involving keeping them in cramped spaces, has also had a devastating impact on UK pig farmers in terms of spending outlay on bringing their farms up to speed when they were introduced in 1999.
The sow stall ban extends to Europe in January 2013, perhaps providing some respite for British pig farmers, as the rest of the continent will now face the inefficiencies it has had to battle with for the past 13 years.
Supermarkets have also received a lot of the blame for forcing farmers out of business by offering too little in return for their products.
Lee Frost, a butcher for WH Frost in Cheshire, said many of the supermarkets liked to give the impression they were supporting local farmers, but the reality was different.
"I bet if you spoke to the supermarkets' accountants their margins would be up and the farmers' would be down," he said.
"Food has been too cheap for too long; you can see the effect through the number of arable and livestock farmers leaving the market. The public has to be prepared to pay more for good food."
Would you pay more if you knew the farmers and not the supermarkets would benefit?
There is some evidence customers are prepared to pay more for their food; the Ribman increased its prices from £5 to £6 after its customers were asked on Twitter whether they would rather have smaller portion sizes or pay a higher price. More than 100 opted for the higher price.
And research from Mintel suggests the phenomenon may not be limited to streetfood; head of food and drink research Kiti Soininen told Huff Post UK that in the dairy market, 39% of consumers who use milk/cream would be willing to pay more if the extra money went to the farmers and a quarter of consumers who use yellow fats said a guarantee of a fair pay to farmers would make them choose one butter/spread over another.
"So there does seem to positive emotion towards the farmers among a noticeable minority of consumers in the dairy sector, and this could also be applicable to red meat, but transparency is likely to be key in ensuring the proposition resonates with consumers," she concluded.
Butcher Frost also criticised the supermarkets for using cheaper European pork to create processed meats and meals, depriving British farmers of that revenue stream.
"They'll often take meat from Europe and then put "produced in the UK on the packaging", he said, acknowledging this may change as the sow stall ban kicks in across Europe.
However, there is evidence to suggest the UK's supermarkets are offering some help.
A spokesman for Asda told Huff Post UK: “In order to ease the pressure on pig farmers we have been paying eight pence per kg above the deadweight on all pig price on pigs that meet our quality specifications, and have been paying this since August."
And Sainsbury's offered a premium price of 10 pence per kilogram for eight weeks between 17 August and 12 October to help struggling farmers, as part of its Pork Development Group, which was established in September 2010 on the back of its Dairy Development Group.
Sainsbury's said the Pork Development Group farmers supplied 100% of the Fresh British pork into Sainsbury's, as well as meat for the Taste the Difference Bacon & Gammon and all of Sainsbury's sausages.
Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, said despite the apocalyptic-sounding headlines on the future of British pork, there was no reason to fear any pork shortages or the collapse of the British pork industry.
"There's often a lack of recognition that supermarkets are the only buyers, " he said. "There's also wholesalers, other retailers, the leisure, hospitality and catering sectors.
Will pork's popularity continue if it becomes as expensive as beef and lamb?
"Yes, these are difficult times, but it's not the first time costs have gone up and it's not the first time supermarkets have engaged with farmers so they can serve their customers.
"The retail sector is working closely with suppliers because they need to - to suggest anything else is nonsense."
Dodd also dismissed claims of farmers leaving the industry in droves, saying: "Yes, there's been consolidation, and there'll probably be more, but this is a substantial and robust industry."
The future of British pork is unclear for now, but the warnings are stark. As sow herd numbers continue to drop across Europe (with decreases as high as 20% predicted for the UK market), the price of bacon, sausages, chops and ham are likely to increase.
British Pig Executive's Mick Sloyan warned a private meeting of British and mainland Europe retailers at a Brussels summit yesterday that a fall of just 2% in slaughterings next year would cause prices to rise by 10%, something worth chewing the fat over.
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