Richard North, 06/10/2021  

As farmers yesterday started to cull their pigs, the prime minister gaily chirped to the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg that the companies in control of supplying goods would "manage" any issues.

Government, Johnson said, would not be "stepping in to patch and mend every bit of our supply chains", adding that it could not "magic-up changes to their systems overnight". Airily he thus dismissed the concerns of the farmers, declaring that, "People need to recognise that we can't simply continue with models which have basically held this country back and held our economy back".

What he was referring to here was, in his own words, the "tired, failed approach" of relying on low skilled and low paid workers from abroad. The long-term effects of the non-crisis would be "higher wages, better working conditions and a rise in productivity".

Thus, he was "not worried" about the squeeze on supply chains, labour shortages or inflation". We were merely seeing the birth pangs of a new economic model.

Much against my better judgement, I actually had the TV turned on for the Kuenssberg-Johnson interview, watching with growing incredulity as he trotted out these jaw-dropping phrases, which even had Kuenssberg moved to head her web report: "Boris Johnson's sunny outlook risks looking out of touch".

If we step back for a moment and look at the productivity of the slaughtering process, we see a sector which has shrunk from 3,326 units in the 1960s to a mere 156 in 2020.

As we know, of these 156 units, only 93 were licensed to slaughter pigs, killing just over nine million in the year. A mere 12 were specialist pig slaughterhouses, of which three had an average throughput of 17,567. The remaining nine slaughtered between them nearly seven million pigs, averaging 760,124 head in each unit.

Over the years, therefore, the slaughter sector – in terms of the reducing number of units – has shown extraordinary productivity gains. But, in comparative terms, the UK is nowhere near Denmark which boasts of its Horsens operation that it is the largest abattoir in the world, producing five million pigs in a year.

On that scale of operation, the entire UK throughput could be handled in two slaughterhouses, with capacity to spare – the ultimate in productivity, of which we assume Johnson would heartily approve.

However, there are many practical reasons why this could not happen in the UK, not least because the UK is a very much larger country with pig production dispersed over a wider area. The concentration of slaughter to the same extent as Denmark would probably be ruled out purely on the grounds of animal welfare during transport.

But there is a darker side to this industry which I alluded to in my earlier piece, with reference to two Guardian articles on the treatment of meat processing labour. This is an industry, we observed, which treats its workers worse than the livestock it kills.

The Danish slaughterhouse companies are very coy when it comes to the sourcing of their labour, but one of the operations which it shares with its German neighbour is the Tönnies group. This, as the Financial Times recorded, has a distinctly unsavoury employment history.

We are nevertheless assured that this company – and other operators are putting their respective houses in order, but the fact is that the problems are inherent in the sizes of the plants and the nature of the work.

These are not operations which are easy to staff and, throughout Europe (including the UK) have become on Eastern European workers. And crucially, this is not only – or even – a wages issue. Local people are not simply prepared to tolerate the conditions, irrespective of pay levels.

The plants themselves find it so difficult to keep manning levels up that they have become increasingly reliant on specialist employment agencies, which – as the Guardian currently reports, is a system prone to abuse, so much so that there are calls within the EU to ban outsourcing.

Given the labour-intensive nature of the operations, though, and the sheer difficulties in recruiting staff, it has yet to be established whether these large plants could manage under a more restrictive employment regime. Like as not, they would start experiencing precisely the same sort of problems that are being currently reported in the UK.

Then there is the separate, although related matter of food safety. The Danes are so proud of the gleaming stainless steel palaces that they have viewing galleries to allow visitors to watch their operations.

Interestingly, they also boast that they have kept their salmonella levels down to one percent – remarkably on the basis of sampling six pig carcasses a day. But what that don't do is point out that, with the slaughter of 17.5 million pigs in 2020, that equates to 175,000 contaminated carcasses each year – most of which are exported.

This points to a one-dimensional understanding of management of food safety, and the practice of hygiene, the latter in its broader context being defined as the art and science of preventing disease, mainly - but not exclusively - the prevention of communicable disease.

As the efforts to control Covid have illustrated, two of the main tools are isolation and the avoidance of large gatherings which, translated into the meat processing context - where the abattoir acts as a focal point for infection of animals from different farms - the primary control is to keep numbers down to minimise the opportunity for spread of infection.

This applies overall and to batch sizes, both of which objectives are better secured in smaller, distinct units. By definition, in the context of public health, smaller is better. When there is this vast concentration as seen in Denmark, this increases the opportunities for the spread of infection. Operators then have to take heroic measures to an attempt to mitigate the effects of the cross infection (and processing cross-contamination) that have been introduced.

When the human aspects of applying hygiene controls are taken into account, it is far easier to supervise and manage smaller units, which allows for a better system of control. But keeping plants small and isolated also reduces the impact of failure. When things go wrong at one plant, the harm it does can be contained.

By way of illustration, in 1994 a salmonella outbreak from contaminated ice-cream produced by the Schwan plant in Marshall, Minnesota, and sold door-to-door nationally, caused an estimated 224,000 cases of food poisoning. The sheer scale of the operation, where nearly 3.4 million people ate some of the one million gallons of ice cream shipped from the plant – all arising from one simple mistake – demonstrates the perils of concentration.

Perversely, therefore, productivity – in terms in which Johnson would undoubtedly define it – is an anathema to food safety. Furthermore, without unacceptable employment practices, they are probably impossible to staff economically, and not at all without resort to immigrant labour.

Johnson, therefore, can prattle all he likes about his "new economic model", with "higher wages, better working conditions and a rise in productivity". But the meat industry structure in the UK is already so concentrated as to be unsustainable. It simply cannot deliver his "model" and, in the interests of public safety and better working conditions, delivery should not even be attempted.

Thus, while Kuenssberg hazards that Johnson risks "looking out of touch", she doesn't know the half of it. The man could not be more of touch with reality if he lived on another planet in a completely different galaxy.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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