New Zealand pork producers could be expected to feel like a sector under siege in recent years. With a deluge of imported product pouring through New Zealand retail trade, the constant threat of devastating disease outbreaks hovering in the background, and a tough campaign by animal rights activists, it would be easy to wonder how the country’s pig farmers manage to get out of bed every morning.
But industry body New Zealand Pork has just appointed Southland farmer Eric Roy to the role of Chairman, and he remains optimistic about the industry’s future and how New Zealand producers are setting the standards for product quality, animal welfare and environmental management.
When Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (now MPI) approved the importation of raw pork products into New Zealand in 2011, producers braced themselves for a surge of product that would threaten to undercut local producers’ lowest possible prices, and even raise the risk of disease.
“Where we are at now, price for pork and what we compete on against imported pork has proven to be an issue. It is tough for our guys to compete with pork products that are capable of being retailed at $3 a kg, there simply is nothing in it for local producers,” says Roy.
He said the added sting comes with the conditions many of those overseas pigs have been raised in.
“We have no say over the conditions that pork is raised in, yet our operators face some very definitive, demanding regulations about how we operate here.”
It is an imbalance that many producers had raised when the decision to allow raw pork imports here was first mooted almost 10 years ago, and it has proven to have come true.
After some high-profile publicity over poor piggery practices, the industry herein New Zealand has worked hard to overhaul and upgrade its standards and has set the bar higher than even standard welfare expectations with its PigCare programme.
Only implemented last year, the programme is still undergoing some bedding in, but it has been established as the only whole of industry certification process, independently verified and audited.
Taking the latest in understanding on pig behaviour and science, combined with input from MPI, vets, farmers and NZ Pork, the programme integrates New Zealand’s already high animal welfare standards with a focus on farmer care, knowledge and experience when it comes to providing for their animals’ health and wellbeing.
“Even though there is a large part of the market looking at the price of pork, there is also a significant part looking at traceability and welfare, and PigCare addresses this.”
While it may not put a dent in the 60% of pork product imported to New Zealand, it is likely to help boost returns and margins to producers here.
“And really that is what we are trying to achieve, we want the industry here to be viable and sustainable.”
“What PigCare means is we can provide evidence we have adhered to certain practices like withholding periods on drugs, for example – a lot of what we can say about PigCare raised pork, you cannot guarantee on the imported product.”
One of the risks coming with imported product is disease, and while New Zealand maintains import standards as strict as those required for any exported product, disease risk always plays in the minds of producers.
At present China is being hit hard by African Swine Fever (ASF), as are parts of Europe where the first case of it was confirmed in Belgium in early September.
“We only import 23 tonnes of pork a year from China, but the concern for us is any pork coming in over the border as family gifts. Fortunately Minister Damien O’Connor has been very sympathetic to our concerns and has worked to increase vigilance over Asian passengers arriving here through customs.”
ASF is highly contagious and a pig population can often have 30-50% losses.
Usually the only means to effectively eradicate it is through wholesale culling of a herd. The disease has moved quickly through China since first being recorded in early August.
In what is very much a breaking story, by mid-October the largest single farm hit with ASF in China had 20,000 pigs, as the threat to the country’s US$1 trillion pig industry rachets up.
Experts believe that should Chinese authorities call for wholesale culling, the impact on global protein markets will be significant given China’s status as the world’s largest pig meat consumer.
“We are continuing to work with the ministry of lifting our scrutiny of any pork products coming into New Zealand.”
He said it was a condition of trade that New Zealand could not ban imported product, but standards and assessment of product will play a big role in keeping the disease out.
Meantime at home, Roy is working to push the case for keeping farrowing facilities in commercial pig operations, despite strong opposition from animal welfare groups, including SAFE.
The case comes before a primary producers select committee soon and Roy is concerned opponents have been selective in their use of data and information about the facilities.
“If you look to Denmark, one of the world’s largest pig producers, they have spent 10 years exploring options, that is with the might and funding of the Common Agricultural Policy behind them. They have only manged to get 2.3% of pigs farrowing outside of containment – if there was a clear winning alternative to farrowing crates, they would have found it.”
He accepts some New Zealand pig farmers are opting for free range type operations, and maintains NZ Pork does not endorse any one option over another.
“We just want to see what is backed by the best science to assist the best means of production.” Pig mortality and health-safety risks to staff and accurate assessment of sow productivity are the three big barriers to farrowing alternatives.
“There is a very variable range of mortality rates, but overall about 4% more pigs will die under a less contained system. Over a large-scale piggery operation, that is significant.”
But for local pig producers keen to push their high-quality New Zealand pork, Country of Origin Label has been a definitive and recent win.
That has been strengthened further in recent weeks, with the Primary Production Select Committee reinstating cured meats into the bill. Roy expects this to be passed by the end of the year, and the industry is anticipating it will hold some strong marketing cards for it.
Interestingly, for an industry locked into the domestic market, there are some producers starting to look at options for leveraging off New Zealand’s excellent biosecurity standards and high quality product, to look at exporting.
It is a similar move to what is also being experienced in the poultry sector, where Tegal in particular has pushed into Japan, Hong Kong and United Arab Emirates in recent years – like the pork industry, the low disease level and freedom from growth hormones and antibiotic use holds strong appeal to many overseas consumers.
“We would struggle to compete on a commodity basis, but the appeal for high quality, even organic pork products is there.”
The industry also continues to play an integral role in key regions including Manawatu, Mid Canterbury and Waikato, supporting these regions’ arable and maize sectors with grain demand.
“Overall, 60% of the sector sits in the middle of the South Island and it plays a big part in keeping demand there for grain output.”
While pork consumption is not rocketing away on a per capita basis in New Zealand, it is holding its own as a protein option, and Roy remains optimistic about the sector’s ability to differentiate itself from the continuing overseas competition and believes the skill of the sector’s farmers gives it a level of robustness and durability.
With the NZ Pork board including two new Directors from the Canterbury region, Helen Andrews from South Canterbury and Southern Pork Managing Director Jason Palmer from Dunsandel, Roy is confident the industry is represented by new ideas, fresh thinking and a dynamic approach to its future.
108 – Commercial pig farms in Sector.
60% - production bred indoors
2% - free range production.
95%- sector covered by PigCare certification.
23kg/head – annual per capita consumption of pork in NZ- up 3kg in 5 years.
44,780t – meat produced each year.
Source: NZ Pork Industry Board, Annual Report 2017.