The long-term future of Scotland’s pig industry is hanging in the balance as a result of China’s continued suspension of an export licence for Brechin’s specialist abattoir.
The £10 million specialist Quality Pork Limited plant, opened just three years ago, has been on a three-day week since the beginning of the month in an attempt to stave off redundancies among the 60-strong workforce.
Pig throughput dropped when China withdrew its export licence following an outbreak of Covid at the Brechin plant in January, and while it was expected that getting the licence reinstated would be a formality, hope is fading that it will happen any time soon.
The Chinese market is important because cuts of pigmeat which are classed as low value in the UK are highly regarded in Asia and command a premium unavailable anywhere else.
In the meantime Scottish Pig Producers chief executive Andy McGowan said the Brechin operation is “knuckling down” and trying to adjust working patterns to minimise costs while the throughput of pigs is low.
“It’s a struggle and it looks like this is the way it’s going to be until we get China back,” he said.
“We stand ready to be audited or do whatever is required but so far it appears to be a logjam. And we’re not alone. Two other plants in England had outbreaks before Christmas and they are still waiting for licences too.”
The long term implications for the pig sector are serious, because instead of selling pigs through Brechin, Scottish pig producers have been forced to sell them to larger commodity markets in England.
Mr McGowan said: “We have tried hard to build the Scottish market up with branding, and the concern is that the large volume alternative markets are all outside Scotland. It would be a real shame if we end up gradually just becoming suppliers to English farms because eventually it will make more sense for them to rear the pigs in England and not Scotland, and the industry will contract.
“I don’t think we’re at that stage yet. But it has already happened with the dairy industry and broilers in the north of Scotland, so it is a concern.”
Mr McGowan made it clear that getting the Chinese market reinstated was critical to the future of the Scottish pig industry.
“It’s pivotal for the business model. Without it it’s tough to plug the hole,” he said.
“We have some great farmers who produce high quality pigs which are in demand and our long term customers are happy paying the extra haulage because they like what they get from us, so (the industry’s decline is) not inevitable, but to keep it going we need to have a good abattoir in Scotland.”