Breakfast is a staple of deli counters. Behind this, however, lies an Irish pork industry in crisis. Rising feed costs, labor shortages at meat plants and fluctuating export markets have created a perfect storm for the state’s 290 commercial pig farmers.
Feed bills for an average herd of 800 sows will cost between €150,000 and €170,000 for the first half of the year; while feed merchants are unwilling to extend credit facilities for these farmers with such uncertain future prices.
Brexit led to a 47% drop in the volume of Irish pork and bacon exports to the UK. While China remains the world’s largest pork importer, its domestic supply has almost fully recovered following an outbreak of African swine fever and a slaughter of 40 million pigs in 2020.
None of these issues are reflected in the basic ingredients found in the average breakfast or Sunday fries. The pack of eight Denny’s Gold label sausages costs just €1.99 for a 227g pack, with pig farmers receiving €1.40 per kilo, with estimates that they need €1.85 per kilo for reach the break-even point.
Meanwhile, many of the available slices may not be Irish, as nearly half of the pork back cuts needed to meet domestic demand for slices are imported.
Irish pig farmers are among the few farmers to operate without government subsidies, instead relying on economies of scale with intensive, covered pig units supplying 99% of the 336,000 tonnes of Irish pork produced each year.
Each of the country’s 1.6 million sows is expected to produce an average of 28 piglets per year. The system has drawn criticism from animal welfare campaigners who warn against treating pigs, while environmentalists worry about the consequences of pollution.
Pigs are known to be intelligent creatures, but the lack of stimulation they get when housed in crowded conditions can lead to stress and aggression. Tail docking – where a tail is cut off or back – is done as a preventive measure to prevent pigs from injuring each other.
A European Council directive banned routine tail docking 20 years ago, but the Bord Bia stipulations allow tooth clipping and tail docking to be performed on piglets less than a week old. In contrast, the equivalent Red Tractor agricultural certification body in the UK has banned both practices altogether.
“You should increase the space for the pigs and the stocking density in the sheds to make sure you don’t bite your tail,” a vet, who did not wish to be named, told the Irish Times. .
“Increasing the size of hangars would cost money and the consumer should see a price increase. This does not happen, if anything, prices go the other way.
Farmers are complaining about underselling and undercutting imports, but Aldi Ireland Group purchasing director John Curtin says all fresh pork sold in stores was 100% Irish meat. Bia Quality Assured.
A statement from Lidl also said the fresh pork in its Glensallagh range was 100% Irish and Bord Bia Quality approved. However, Tesco did not respond to the same query at press time.
In addition to price issues, staff shortages at meat factories have created a backlog of pigs on farms awaiting slaughter, with Rosderra Meats, one of the country’s largest processors, needing 150 workers.
In an industry where only 20% of the workforce is Irish, the ability to attract and retain overseas staff willing to work on the slaughter lines, deboning rooms and packing areas of the factories of meat was a problem.
Staffing is also an issue in the UK, where since last October more than 30,000 healthy pigs have had to be euthanized on farms instead of entering the food chain due to a lack of staff.
“We are not yet at the stage where we have to euthanize pigs, but we are jam-packed,” says Kerry pig farmer Shane McAuliffe.
Pigs must be slaughtered at a certain age, weight and size to meet market specifications, otherwise farmers risk being penalized by the price they receive.
If the personnel issue is to be resolved, the industry must seriously review its working conditions and pay, says Bill Abom, deputy director of the Migrant Rights Center Ireland (MRCI). “All the workers who have come to see us over the past year have told us that they are overworked. They will tell us that when they arrived at the factory, two people were doing a job whereas only one person is doing it now and expected to do it at the same rate,” he says.
Some 500 butcher permits and 1,500 general business permits for non-EU workers were issued by the Department of Trade to the meat industry last October, with a minimum wage of €27,500 and €22,000 respectively , as well as housing and language training.
The UK also issued licenses to 800 butchers late last year, but uptake has been slow, with many European workers preferring to stay closer to home as industries such as construction pick up again. the continent. Some Irish meat factories have had to go all the way to China to source workers according to information released by the Department of Commerce.
However, Meat Industry Ireland director Cormac Healy said labor is not the central issue at present, “although it does lead to some limitation in processing capacity”, and that the delay in issuing work permit is a problem.
“With the current processing times for new permit applications, candidates should not be able to take up positions until the second quarter of this year,” he said.
However, MRCI’s Abom says the permit system creates an impossible situation for people.
“Work permits are tied to a single employer, so workers cannot easily leave a job if they are unhappy,” says Abom.
“It creates a captive audience and employers know it. I feel like they wear people out and the work rate means they get hurt or leave.
“Even though people come as butchers and get the top rate of €13.50/hour when they hit their 40s, their bodies are often exhausted from lifting and chopping all day.”
A 2021 Irish Meat Industry Report from the Irish Trades Union Congress showed that labor costs in Ireland are the third lowest in Europe, at just €33,800 per employee compared to Denmark, where the average is €60,400.
Apart from personnel issues, pig farmers are also concerned about rising feed prices. Six million tonnes of grain are imported annually for animal feed, leaving the state vulnerable to fluctuating feed and market prices, while Russia’s recent ban on ammonium nitrate exports is expected to add further other problems.
Elsewhere, pig farmers are also suffering, with French and Polish governments announcing aid packages. All eyes are now on Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue to present his version of the same.
However, pig farmers fear that the European Commission’s de minimis rules will see payments limited to just €20,000 per head. As pig farmers seek bank credit to pay their bills, an industry insider said: ‘This leaves farmers who need the money the most unable to get it.’