Hundreds of healthy pigs slaughtered amid UK shortage of abattoir workers

Farmers warned that up to 120,000 animals face being slaughtered as they lack space to house them

The slaughter of healthy pigs has begun on British farms, with farmers forced to kill animals to make space and ensure the continued welfare of their livestock, amid an ongoing shortage of workers at slaughterhouses.

Pig farmers have been warning for several weeks that labour shortages at abattoirs have led to a backlog of as many as 120,000 pigs left stranded on farms long after they should have gone to slaughter.

The meat industry is one of many sectors of the UK economy grappling with labour shortages linked to Brexit and the pandemic, while a lack of delivery workers and drivers has affected supply chains.

About 600 pigs have been killed at farms across the country, according to Zoe Davies, the chief executive of the National Pigs Association, who said that culling had begun at a “handful” of farms.

Industry experts said the carcasses would most likely be turned into biodiesel and other non-food products, because they cannot be classed as fit for consumption.

The majority of pigs slaughtered on farm are expected to be taken to the UK’s rendering plants. Rendering separates fat from meat and bones, and the products can then be used for pet food and animal feed. However, because the pigs will die on farm and not in slaughterhouses, as is the norm, they cannot be approved for human consumption and so will not enter the food chain.

“We have moved to stage two,” Davies said. “Stage one was contingency planning and putting pigs in temporary accommodation. Stage two, we have not got any more space and pigs are growing, there are more on farm that we can manage.

“You either stop mating sows, which some farmers are doing, or you thin out pigs so the welfare of those on farm isn’t negatively impacted. We shouldn’t have to be here and we shouldn’t be doing this at all.”

Animals ready for slaughter but stuck on farms require feeding and housing, causing financial difficulties for farmers. Meanwhile, large pigs which are overdue for slaughter often grow by about 1kg a day, becoming too large for slaughterhouses to handle.

“I have had grown men in tears on the phone just at the thought to having to contemplate killing healthy animals. We have to avoid welfare culling on farm,” Davies said.

Some farmers are understood to be culling piglets, while others have been bringing slaughtermen to their farms to kill larger animals which have grown too big to take to abattoirs.

A source told the Guardian that there had been a small but noticeable increase in the number of dead sows seen in the last two to three weeks at rendering plants, suggesting that some farmers are reducing their breeding stock.

Farmers are responsible for the safe and legal disposal of dead livestock, and it is against the law to bury or burn carcasses, in order to prevent the risk of contamination of the soil, groundwater or air.

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Farmers are insistent that low wages are not the reason that meat processing plants are struggling to fill their vacancies. “We are still being represented as a low-pay industry, and we need to put the record straight,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), adding that meat processing plants are offering wages of up to £18 an hour, but are still unable to attract enough workers.

Britain’s food and drink industry has previously called on the government to introduce a “Covid-19 recovery visa” to recruit overseas workers to temporarily ease disruption in the food supply chain.

Trade associations representing all areas of the UK’s food chain have proposed a one-year visa that would allow workers to be recruited for jobs such as HGV drivers, butchers, chefs and other food industry workers.


Joanna Partridge

The GuardianTramp

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