Chinese pork deal could save farmers' bacon

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The Independent Online

British pig farmers, whose industry has been pushed to the brink of collapse, may have found their salvation in China's insatiable appetite for pork.

British pig farmers, whose industry has been pushed to the brink of collapse, may have found their salvation in China's insatiable appetite for pork.

Thousands of British piglets and sows, and the farming technology used to rear them, are to be exported to China in a series of joint ventures that could be worth billions of pounds to an industry in crisis.

The irony will not be lost on British farmers, who raise breeds of pigs which originated in China hundreds of years ago and travelled to Western Europe along the Silk Route. Similar plans are being drawn up for British poultry.

Pig breeders can expect a huge surge in demand for prime white pigs specifically for breeding purposes, while pig farmers can similarly hope to see a rise in sales of processed pork to the Far East.

"It is extremely good news," said Mick Sloyan, the manager of the British Pig Executive at the Meat and Livestock Commission. "British farmers produced 800,000 tons of pig meat last year. The Chinese produced 40 million tons. To get even a small part of that market will prove very significant for our farmers."

Pork farmers are thought to be losing £4m a week, and about 1,500 pig farmers, more than a quarter of the total, have left the business over the past year. A study compiled by the Meat and Livestock Commission, the National Pig Association and the British Pig Executive earlier this year warned of up to 50,000 job losses within the industry and related services. Their troubles have been caused partly by the high pound, but also by Britain's abandonment of the stall and tethers method of keeping pigs, on animal welfare grounds, which has imposed additional production costs of £90m a year. The rest of Europe continues to use the old methods, and can now undercut the price of British bacon, pork and ham. But now, the methods of British pig farmers hold an advantage. The Chinese cannot eat enough of our pigs and chickens and admire our breeding technology. In particular, they are keen to link up with British firms because our pigs are reared without growth hormones but still tend to grow bigger, more quickly, than our mainland European rivals.

"Pig farmers in Britain are used to dealing with a sophisticated domestic market," said Mr Sloyan. "We produce pigs that convert feed into meat more quickly than Chinese pigs can, giving a good quality of lean pork that fits in with the urban Chinese market."

But Chris Knock, who has farmed pigs in Stowmarket, Suffolk, for 20 years, was more cautious. "I can't see many pig farmers benefiting from this, unless the Chinese decide to employ them on the ground. But it is a psychological boost, and we can develop a niche product based on our technical know-how."

The move will see the pigs retracing an ancient trade route, for the Meishan pig, one of the popular breeds, is native to the Far East. The Meishan is a prolific breeder and has been cross-bred with other species, such as the White Pig to get what pig farmers consider to be a "super pig".

The unlikely link was established in equally improbable circumstances, following a chance meeting in Azerbaijan between Chinese businessmen and representatives of Technical Expertise and Marketing Services, a Hull-based company that specialises in introducing British firms to foreign markets. "At the end of this we could be dealing with billions of pounds," said Barry Bellenie of TEMS.