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Black hole opens up in slaughter figures

by 5m Editor
28 February 2003, at 12:00am

UK - Weekly slaughter figures have plummeted by a third, catching some of the meat trade by surprise.

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Producers have given notice for several months that a big fall was on the way.

And they are warning now that numbers will fall still further because the so-called "new syndrome", which affects fertility, is increasingly making its presence felt on farms and is reducing output by a further 10 percent to 30 percent.

Suggestions, based on last summer's census figures, that the national herd has reached bottom and is starting to stabilise, are hotly disputed by many pig farmers.

They argue that many producers - perhaps the majority - have downsized their herds over the past four months, in response to poor prices and continuing difficulties with PMWS.

There is a view, therefore, that even though the December census may show a continuing trend towards stabilisation, it will be misleading, in view of recent cutbacks in the herd.

"I warned a year ago that a big black hole was opening up," said pig industry consultant Peter Crichton today.

He predicts that as the effects of infertility kick in, the weekly pig supply figure could fall by as much as a further 20 per cent.

Estimated slaughterings for the week ending February 8 (the week after the bad weather) are 134,000 head. This is 32 percent down on last year's average weekly supply of 197,000 head.

Some abattoirs reacted to producers' strident warnings last autumn by locking into fair, long-term contracts. Those who failed to do this now face serious difficulties.

Abattoirs should not assume that producers will sign up to contract renewals without first insisting on some fundamental changes to the price mechanism. In particular there is a desire to see price calculations laying less emphasis on AESA and more on spot.

And a number of producers are simply not signing contract renewals, because they need the extra income currently available from the spot market to help make up the losses of 2002.

The main danger in the current crisis is that some retailers may use shortening supplies as an excuse to dump their British fresh pork policy, but that is not an issue yet.

The main danger in the current crisis is that some retailers may use shortening supplies as an excuse to dump their British fresh pork policy. But NPA chairman Richard Longthorp says that day is way off because British pork is still dirt cheap.

"British retailers love to use British to promote but do they always promote British?," he said today.

"In recent months we have seen signs that they are becoming genuinely aware of the advantages of British pork. What they must do now, as supplies tighten, is learn to promote British seriously and to reap the benefits by delighting their customers, most of whom want to see British meat rather than foreign meat on the meat counters."

MLC's current forecast is that slaughterings for 2003 will be around 9.8m, compared to last year's 10.2m. On the evidence of the past few weeks this may now appear optimistic but NPA's Ian Campbell believes it is still achievable.

"We must remember the pig industry is reaching its nadir," he said today, "partly because many producers have heeded the call to become more efficient, by depopulating.

"Once the buildings have been cleaned and rested and the repopulations are complete we should see a dramatic improvement in performance and I suspect the weekly kill figure will climb back up to around 160,000 pigs a week."

Defra's decision to cease producing weekly kill statistics has proved a major blow to the industry and is seriously hampering accurate understanding of the current situation.

However, BPEX has devoted considerable time and effort in recent months to "stiffening up" the AESA sample and it is now possible to extrapolate a weekly kill figure that is accurate to within five percent either way, from the weekly AESA returns.

Source: National Pig Association - 28th February 2003

5m Editor