Pig farmers to Boris Johnson: Please save our bacon
Farmers say Brexit has created tremendous trade hurdles, warning of a 'crisis' ahead.
British pig farmers have told the U.K. government that Brexit is causing a looming emergency in their sector and called on major retailers to buy more British bacon to help them stave off financial ruin.
Increased bureaucracy is hindering pig farmers exporting their products to the EU, while minimal U.K. tariffs are allowing in cheap EU imports, according to the U.K.’s National Pig Association, or NPA. More than 100,000 pigs are now stuck on British farms, unable to be exported, the group says.
“The overall picture is now one of enormous disruption to our export supply chain, but of minimal problems and relative ease for EU imports into the U.K.,” NPA chairman Richard Lister wrote in a letter to the U.K. farm minister George Eustice, dated January 22 and seen by POLITICO. “This imbalance, combined with other market pressures and COVID-19, is a serious threat to our industry.”
“We believe that this is just the start of what will rapidly turn into a crisis for our members if nothing is done to improve their situation,” the letter added.
British pig prices registered their biggest weekly fall in five years immediately after Brexit and are currently 23 pence per kilo lower than a year ago, a year-on-year decline of around 15 percent.
The NPA letter called on the government to set up a roundtable with meat producers, processors and retailers, which it hopes can be used to pressure high street retailers into adopting a “buy British” policy. That in turn could help struggling farmers avert financial ruin, the NPA hopes.
“The two biggest [retailers] ASDA and Tesco don’t have a commitment to buying a certain percentage of British, so they can basically shift their supply, based on what’s more cost effective,” said the NPA’s chief executive, Zoe Davies. “In normal market times it wouldn’t matter, but we’re not in normal market times.”
Brexit export woes
Like other exporting industries such as fisheries, which have long relied on the EU market, pig farmers are feeling the effects of tighter export rules following Brexit. They must give EU border control posts advance notice of goods arriving and complete export health certificates, or EHCs, for all live animals or products of animal origin, that they export. These must be signed by an official food certifier or vet.
In a sign of the increased bureaucratic burden, one exporter trying to move 15 tons of pig meat to the Netherlands needed EHCs in three languages, in duplicate, with 72 stamps from a veterinarian, and signatures in various parts of the paper, the NPA said.
Exporters are also subject to U.K exit declaration fees, EU customs entry declaration charges, new haulage costs, and border VAT payments which in Germany, for example, can be 7 percent of the total.
By contrast, the U.K. has deliberately left foodstuff entry tariffs unchanged to prevent domestic shortages. European pig meat prices have also been depressed by a market glut after China banned German imports following an African swine fever outbreak in the fall.
“If Germany’s pig price goes down, everybody’s pig price goes down,” Davies said.
According to the British Meat Processors Association, or BMPA, exports to the EU are running at 25 percent of normal levels for this time of year and U.K. operators are starting to give up on the European market as a result.
Traders have been particularly concerned that a mix-up between the U.K. and EU over “controlled housing” conditions is forcing operators to prove the absence of a parasitic worm called trichinella in export consignments, even though it has been largely eradicated in the U.K. Exporters blame the European Commission for not communicating to port authorities an interim decision recognizing U.K. controlled housing conditions as acceptable.
So far, the British government has blamed export hold-ups on “teething troubles.”
“There is a familiarization cost there, but once people get used to it, I think it will work fine,” farm minister Eustice said Friday. “The bigger businesses are already coping with his paperwork,” he added.
The U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to respond to questions about the meat industry’s specific concerns, but a spokesman said: “We’ve always been clear that there would be new processes for traders, and we continue to support them in their transition to these new arrangements.”
Meanwhile, industry hopes that the Brexit treaty might be somehow softened were dashed last week when the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned British businesses that there “cannot be … any kind of renegotiation” of the deal, feeding farmers’ frustrations.
“It’s appalling that the U.K. government wasn’t looking at this way before in terms of impact” on farmers, Davies said. “They walked in completely blindly and made a right mess of it.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that British pig prices registered their biggest weekly fall in five years immediately after Brexit.