Karro, which owns the UK and Ireland’s biggest pig factory at Cookstown, Co Tyrone, has written to farmer suppliers asking them to contact their MPs about the need for “swift action to avert a farm welfare disaster, empty food shelves and food inflation spiral”.

In the letter, the company explains that they are currently operating with a 20% shortage of workers (around 700 vacancies) despite several initiatives to attract employees.

They put this shortage down to Brexit and EU labour returning home, combined with huge demand from other sectors as the economy reopens.

Interestingly they point out that COVID-19 isn’t an issue.

The company wants farmers to request that their MP lobbies for the seasonal workers scheme in the UK to be extended to include all food industry jobs, for butchers to be put on the shortage occupation list, and for the English test to be removed for new workers.

Pig producers have this week alerted the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) about delays in getting their pigs into the factory

This dire warning about the state of the industry comes as Karro’s Cookstown plant has been reducing its intake of pigs over recent weeks which is leading to a backlog building up on farms north and south of the Irish border.

Pig producers have this week alerted the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) about delays in getting their pigs into the factory and the UFU has a meeting today (Thursday) with DAERA Minister Edwin Poots to discuss the issue.

Problem

Staff shortages are a growing problem across the agri-food sector in recent weeks. The meat processing industry has been engaging with officials in Belfast and London.

In addition, James McCluggage from the UFU confirmed to the Irish Farmers Journal that they have written to Ministers Poots and Lyons in the Stormont Executive, as well as Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and Home Secretary Priti Patel, raising concerns about staff levels in processing.

The factory was capable of killing the pigs but getting them deboned and processed was the bottleneck

Roy Gallie, Irish Farmers' Association pig chair, told the Irish Farmers Journal that he has contacted Karro and was told by the company on Wednesday afternoon that they had lost a further seven butchers today and would need 77 more butchers to process pig carcases.

The factory was capable of killing the pigs but getting them deboned and processed was the bottleneck.

With a backlog of pigs already built up on farms, Roy Gallie said that “a pig welfare crisis is very close if it isn’t already here”.

Karro handles approximately 24,000 pigs per week. Prior to COVID-19 disruption, the company had been major exporters of bone in pigmeat to China which required less labour than boneless product for UK and Irish markets.