The government has been told to convene an emergency summit of the entire pig supply chain amid a 'deteriorating' on-farm backlog, with fears the crisis could go on until at least June.
The National Pig Association (NPA) and the NFU have issued a fresh plea to Defra Secretary George Eustice to get the supply chain together to find urgent solutions.
The call comes as the pig backlog is now estimated to be well in excess of 170,000 due to a lack of butchers in pork processing plants, as a result of the pandemic and Brexit.
Tens of thousands of healthy pigs have been culled on farms by increasingly desperate producers who have run out of space.
In the first week of this year, some farmers reported that as few as 50% of contracted pigs were taken by processors, the NPA says.
It adds that on average, 30% of pigs that processors are contracted to take from producers are not going into the food supply chain each week.
For many producers, this has been the case since last summer. The expectation is that the backlog and ongoing food waste will remain in place until at least June.
Meanwhile, challenging market conditions, exacerbated by the backlog costs, record feed costs and falling pig prices, mean farmers have now been losing around £25 per pig for nearly a year.
In a joint letter to Mr Eustice, NPA chairman Rob Mutimer and NFU President Minette Batters said the situation was ‘deteriorating’ for pig producers, and that it was ‘clearly not sustainable’.
They warned it was "totally unacceptable that processors continue to take overweight pigs that they contracted farmers to produce at hugely discounted prices."
“The NPA and NFU are asking that you arrange a summit of the entire pig supply chain so that we can agree a plan to get these pigs off farms and onto people’s plates.
“We are aware of 40 independent farms that have left the industry already,” the NPA and NFU's letter said.
The groups also highlighted that 30,000 sows have been lost from the English sow herd over the last six months, equating to around 10% of the herd, although this was likely to be an underestimate.
“All of these factors are taking a huge toll on farmers’ mental health as the crisis worsens every week, especially for those having to endure the trauma of culling healthy animals when there seems to be no end in sight.”
While the NPA and NFU expressed gratitude for Defra's support measures, announced in October last year and recently extended, they stressed that the measures were not working and had failed to alleviate the backlog.
The NPA said it was aware of only 105 butchers that had, or were due to arrive, using the industry's seasonal visa scheme.
It is also understood that Defra has only received three applications for Private Storage Aid and that there has been no take up of the Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme.
The NPA and NFU called on Mr Eustice to improve the visa application process to make access simpler and quicker in order to help reduce the backlog.
The letter also urged Defra to encourage retailers to collectively play their part in running marketing campaigns to increase British pork sales to help steer the industry out of this crisis. Only Morrisons and Waitrose have done this so far.
Mr Mutimer warned that the situation was 'utterly dire' on pig farms, both in terms of the backlog and financially.
"We are already seeing a significant drop in breeding herd numbers, and we fear that if nothing changes, we could see a mass exodus from this industry over the next 12 months. Once we lose that production base, we won’t get it back.
“We need some urgent solutions now, which is why we are asking Mr Eustice to bring everyone together – and soon – to discuss how we can all work collectively to prevent this crisis becoming a catastrophe for the British industry.”
NFU President Minette Batters added that the situation facing pig farmers across the country was 'absolutely devastating'.
“This is a situation completely out of their control and the fact we are seeing the first ever cull of healthy pigs in this country is absolutely heart-breaking for those farmers and all of us in farming.
“This has gone on for far too long. It is essential that the Secretary of State convenes this urgent summit to find solutions that can alleviate this crisis.”