Bacon may be the star of the traditional British breakfast plate, but successive crises of classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease, the loss of an export market and the excessively high value of the British currency has decimated the ranks of local pig farmers.

Over the last six years, 4,000 pig farmers called it a day, while officially an estimated 10,000 producers are still pressing on. And the national livestock holdings, which once amounted to 800,000 sows, are now only 500,000. The United Kingdom, which once slaughtered 14 million pigs a year, now kills around 10 million. The victims are not just from the ranks of farmers. A good number of pork providers, transporters, and the two thirds of slaughterhouses have also locked their doors.

“We have begun to believe that we have been cursed by a witch,” says Stewart Houston, president of the National Pig Association (NPA). He speaks with the heavy accent of Yorkshire, a region in the north of England whence comes the pig of the same name.

Stewart Houston with a copy of his strategy to re-launch the British pork industry. “The hardest part is to give back morale to the troops after five years of misery,” says the president of the National Pig Association (NPA.)

All this has led to a domestic pork production sufficiency rate falling from 80 to 54 percent, with the lack made up through imports at lower prices from Denmark, from Holland, from Spain and from France. Even as the imports fill the refrigerated foods sections of the main supermarkets, British farmers charge that it is unfair competition because they are required by law to produce under much tougher animal welfare regulations to ensure the well being of their animals.

“When they (the British government) abolished the system of sows in cages and replaced it with a group housing system, I invested $150,000 in a new construction,” says Paul Rhodes, a former pig farmer who, with 600 sows and 28 piglets weaned each year, was named the United Kingdom’s stock breeder of the year in 1993. He quit in 2000.

“I lost four to five piglets per sow because I had less control over the conception rate,” he continues.

Houston, of the NPA, concedes that the U.K. will never have the lowest cost of production. Along with the British Pork Executive (BPEX), a new commercial arm in charge of developing domestic markets as well as exports, he formed a plan to re-launch the British pork industry on two fronts. If the domestic market constitutes the principal breadwinner of the British pork industry, exports did represent substantial annual revenue – more than $600 million Canadian, before the animal health crises blew onto the scene.

Houston does not mean to lead his troops into battle to defend just “a silly slice of bacon.” It’s because new players are targeting the lucrative British market – foremost Brazil, with Poland close behind. In addition, the mighty American company, Smithfield, has recently set food in Poland, and no one can afford to ignore this giant.

The Danish example
The first part of the Houston’s strategy: segmentation of the market in order to offer a uniquely British product to its citizens, all while judiciously stressing the presence of British pigs’ fine genetic profile that leads to improved quality and taste. There would be organic pork, “outdoor”pork and “free range” pork.

According to Chris Young, general manager of a farm with 3,300 sows, the animal health rules have greatly affected the productivity of British producers. In addition, he believes that “at the supermarket, the British housewife chooses a less expensive product, which is usually imported.”

“We have given our genetic expertise to the four corners of the world and now, it’s time to harvest the ideas of others,” says Michael Sloyan, the executive director of BPEX. He cites the example of the Danish, who possess a machine in their slaughterhouses that is capable of “reading” 3,000 cuts on one pork carcass. It’s a technology that lets them allot each cut to the most lucrative segment of the market.

“In China on Friday nights, the guys don’t drink beer and eat popcorn. The package they place in the microwave contains finely cut pigs’ ears. They are sold at the same price as loin,” says Sloyan, who has just returned from an inspiring trip to China and is still buoyed by the success of the this product, which has been commercialized by a Chinese company.

The cooperative chain totally integrates Danish producers, from the farm to factory products, which makes Sloyan excited: “Danish producers don’t have the lowest production costs but they are able to plant their flag everywhere!”

Already staked in England, the Danish Crown cooperative merged its British offshoot, Tulip, with a British meat production company called Flagship Food in September 2004 to create Tulip Ltd., the biggest consortium in the United Kingdom integrating the industry, from the farm right to the table. It does $2.3 billion Canadian in business annually, has 7,000 employees and 21 facilities. The final fattening up of pigs from the consortium’s 28,000 sows is contracted out to local producers.

Over the course of the last four years, the structure of British production moved rapidly towards integration. More than 50 per cent of the fattening up of pigs is shared today between 25 companies. “We call these Bed & Breakfast Pigs,” explains Paul Rhodes, who has doubts over the future of small independent producers unless they regroup themselves.

Animal health, the great challenge
The second front of Houston’s re-launch plan consists of reducing the cost of production. “Our experience demonstrate that we can lower the cost of production by 12 cents (Canadian) a kilo by feeding the animals with wet feed instead of dried feed,” he says.

Paul Rhodes has already been crowned producer of the year in the United Kingdom. Today, he works for the new organization, English Farming and Food Partnership (EFFP), where the objective is to create farmers’ cooperative to face down the supermarkets.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge in this area remains improving the sanitary standards of British livestock holdings whose status is still somewhat fragile. Back in 2000, the worst international crisis of foot in mouth disease ever stemmed from an Asiatic virus. A government inquiry revealed that pigs raised in the outdoors had eaten food from a Chinese restaurant in Carlisle, a port city on the east coast of England. The practice of feeding pigs with discarded food from restaurants has since been abolished. But an internal report by the ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reports that an average of 11,800 tons of meat secretly enter Great Britain each year.

Houston wants to develop a national information relay system from slaughterhouses to producers to report any kind of lesion. And, while working closely with veterinarians, the strategy aims at raising the number of piglets born to each sow from 18 to 21, back to levels attained before the crisis began in 1998. “This one improvement would give us 1.5 million more pigs to put on the market each year,” he says.

British bacon?
To distinguish their bacon from that sold under contract in supermarkets, British producers use the British Pork Standard logo surrounded by colors of the British flag, which is placed on packages of meat alongside the other label, namely, the “Little Red Tractor” developed by the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Following the mad cow crisis, it is forbidden in the United Kingdom to give both cud-chewing animals and mono-gastric animals any feed that contains animal byproducts.

“We have nothing against imports but everybody must play on the same level field. Seventy per cent of pork meat imports don’t conform to British production standards,” says Houston. European Union producers must conform to the rules of animal health adopted by the British over two stages, in 2008 and 2012.

In the meantime, free to import pork meat at will, certain supermarkets have sold foreign bacon under a label that looks like the British Quality Standard logo, misleading a number of consumers who are prepared to pay a premium price for a British product.

Under guise of a counter-attack, British pork producers have installed a formidable public relations machine to complain and embarrass the fraud artists. The organization, Porkwatch, recruits volunteers in the industry to check the meat counters in 400 stores every two months, scrutinizing the packages of bacon, ham, pig’s feet and shoulders in order to ensure they carry British Quality Standard logo and denounce the imitations. The results of their polls, relayed to consumers, also identify the “hero” supermarkets that regularly sell national products. This does not seal up the breach. Some of the imported meat is transformed in England so that it can legally benefit from the British label. “We have written an ethics code over imports to guide the main supermarkets,” says Houston, setting the framework to deal with the problem.

Are British consumers ready to pay more for British bacon? Yes, swears Houston, adding that over the last three years, the sale of British meat has generated an average premium of 25 cents Canadian a kilo, in respect to its European competition.

In England, the re-launch of the pork industry rests like never before in the wallets of the ever-sovereign consumer.


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