Ulster Pork and Bacon Forum chief executive, Deirdre McIvor, has confirmed that farmers and processors working within the Northern Ireland pig industry are under pressure like never before.

The key factor in this is an acute labour shortage, which McIvor claims has been apparent since well before Brexit.

She said: "There was some positive news when government announced 800 temporary, six-month visas to help alleviate the pressures on the pork industry.

“However, it must be noted that the visas are for the whole of the UK.

Locally, each processing site will be allocated a number of these visas and they are currently working through a process which has yet to be fully clarified.

"It is, however, becoming clear that this will take time, something we are rapidly running out of," she added.

“As a sector we welcome any help, but the truth is, this is not enough and frankly, is just putting a sticking plaster on the wound.”

Labour shortage in pig industry

According to McIvor, Northern Ireland’s pork processers don’t know how many people will want to come to work for just six months.

She continued:

We do know that it can take at least three months to train butchery staff and up to six months for slaughter hall operatives. So, what happens when they are trained and up to speed?

“They will have to leave. What is the solution then? Another six-month visa? Another three-month training period? A continuation of piece-meal, ineffective attempts to solve the problem?”

Backlog of pigs

The backlog of pigs on farms is another hugely pressing issue for forum members.

“Our farmers are under extreme pressure and I am genuinely worried about their mental health,” McIvor said.

“They have run out of space for livestock, their finances are under pressure and all contingencies have been exhausted.

We have met with Minister [for Agriculture Edwin] Poots again and the Pork and Bacon Forum is preparing a plan on how we might deal with the backlog.

“This is not easy. DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has offered Private Storage Aid and other incentives to processors to manage weekend kills," she added.

It's understood the detail of this is not yet confirmed, but it will be for Great Britain only, she explained.

"We are asking that DAERA [Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] urgently provides similar support measures for NI. I cannot overstate the gravity of the situation surrounding the backlog.”

Pork and Bacon Forum members have said that they are not demanding open-ended immigration, but rather "practical and measured access" to the skilled global labour needed to sustain and grow the pig industry.

“The greatest irony in this is that our sector has huge potential,” McIvor said.

“The UK is only 50% self-sufficient in pork and customer demand for British pork is strong.  However, without labour, our growth potential amounts to nothing and product will be imported from Europe or beyond to satisfy demand," she concluded.