Stuffing and pigs in blankets could be off the table this Christmas as the meat industry remains gripped by a shortage of butchers.
Industry figures warned farmers are days away from a ‘mass cull’ of animals as slaughterhouses are now thought to be around 15,000 workers short of what they need to keep the supply chain moving.
Pork supplies are particularly vulnerable as it quickly becomes uneconomical to keep pigs as they grow past a certain age.
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) warned ‘labour-intensive’ products are the most at risk of disappearing from shelves as abattoirs are being forced to focus on supplying basic cuts of meat.
A spokesperson told The Times: ‘We really should have been producing Christmas food from about June or July onwards this year and so far we haven’t, so there’ll be shortages of party foods and things like pigs in blankets.’
A double-whammy of Covid and Brexit has drained the UK of many types of seasonal workers and caused shortages of other parts of the food supply chain, such as carbon dioxide gas.
Ministers are considering easing visa restrictions for up to 1,000 foreign butchers, although the move is reportedly being resisted by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Rob Mutimer, chairman of the National Pig Association, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The problem in the industry has got very considerably worse over the last three weeks.
‘We are within a couple of weeks of actually having to consider a mass cull of animals in this country.’
Mr Mutimer said his animals are over 20 per cent larger when they go to slaughter, with pig farms of all sizes facing a ‘real worry’ of running out of space to keep their animals this winter.
He added: ‘The pens and the sheds and everything just weren’t designed for animals of this size and we’re really heading into an acute welfare disaster very quickly.’
Asked what a ‘mass cull’ would entail, Mr Mutimer continued: ‘It involves either shooting pigs on farm, or taking them to an abattoir, killing the animals, and actually disposing them in the skip at the other end of the chain.
‘So these animals won’t go into the food chain. They will either be rendered, or if not, sent for incineration. So it’s an absolute travesty.’
A spokesman for the Department For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘We understand the importance of seasonal labour and we are aware of the challenges that the pig industry has faced in recent months because of the Covid-19 pandemic and labour shortages, and Defra has been working closely with the pig and processing sectors during this time.
‘We are keeping the market under close review and continuing to work closely with the sector to explore options to address the pressures industry is currently facing.’
The Home Office added: ‘We are closely monitoring labour supply and working with sector leaders to understand how we can best ease particular pinch points. Similar challenges are being faced by other countries around the world.
‘We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad. Our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.
‘The Government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options wage increases and investment.’
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