Hundreds of additional temporary visas for foreign butchers have been announced by the government as part of a package of support following calls from the industry to intervene over labour shortages.
It comes after warnings that up to 150,000 pigs could be destroyed as waste as the labour shortage in meat processing has led to a backlog of animals ready for slaughter.
It is estimated that a combination of rising feed costs, dropping market prices and penalties for selling pigs “out of spec” have combined to cost Scottish pig producers £5m.
Measures announced by the government on Thursday include up to 800 visas for butchers to come to the UK for up to six months.
Under the plans, there will also be funding for additional meat storage, moves to introduce processing of animals on Saturdays and the potential for longer working hours.
National Farming Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said the visa announcement was a “step in the right direction”.
The government said the pig industry has faced challenges in recent months because of the pandemic and the temporary suspension of approval to export to China for some UK pork establishments.
These issues have led to a backlog of pigs awaiting slaughter, the government said.
Environment secretary George Eustice said: “A unique range of pressures on the pig sector over recent months such as the impacts of the pandemic and its effect on export markets have led to the temporary package of measures we are announcing today.
“This is the result of close working with industry to understand how we can support them through this challenging time.”
Mr Bradshaw told Times Radio: “We really welcome the recognition of how serious the issue is. The 800 visas is a step in the right direction that will really help to get things back on track. And I guess, for us now, the critical thing is how quickly can we get those butchers over here?”
He added: “I’m pleased that however challenging its been, we know George Eustice has really been fighting the corner for the industry. He’s managed to get this over the line. And we just now need to implement it, as I say, as quickly as possible. And there can’t be any delays in getting those visas out.”
Up to 800 pork butchers will be eligible to apply for six-month visas from the existing allocation in the Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme up until December 31.
The government said the move is temporary and is in addition to foreign butchers already being eligible since December 2020 to apply to come to the UK through the existing skilled worker route.
In addition, a fund will be set up for a private storage aid system in England to allow meat processors to store slaughtered pigs for three to six months so they can be preserved and processed at a later date.
Details of the fund will be announced shortly, the government said.
A spokesperson for the National Pig Association said: “We are so very relieved that the Government has finally released some measures aimed at reducing the significant pig backlog on farms.
“We are working with the processors to understand the impact of these new measures and to determine exactly what will happen now, and how quickly, so that we can give pig farmers some hope and stem the flow of healthy pigs currently having to be culled on farms.”
The Liberal Democrats criticised the support package as a “half-baked and inadequate” visa scheme.
Two meat levy bodies for England and Scotland, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), have announced a pork levy holiday which will suspend payments of the levy pig farmers and producers are required to pay for November.
This will deliver savings of just under £1 million for the sector, the government said.
The government has said it wants the industry to improve working conditions and training in the UK, and invest in technology to meet its labour needs.