'Concern' remains for pork industry with Government support coming to an end

The sector struggled during the nationwide lockdown.
The sector struggled during the nationwide lockdown. Photo credit: Getty

The country's pork industry says it's looking forward with "interest and concern" as a Government initiative aimed at supporting it through COVID-19 comes to an end.

The sector struggled during the nationwide lockdown as the closure of independent butcheries, small retailers and restaurants meant a massive drop in domestic demand for pork.

Although butchers - initially deemed not to be an essential service - were later allowed to process pork for supply to retailers and to subsequently open under level 3 in a way that avoided face-to-face contact, there were fears their closure would lead to an animal welfare crisis due to a lack of capacity to hold surplus pigs.

That crisis was eventually avoided through a Government initiative to buy up to 2000 pigs or 112,000kg of surplus pork per week to give to foodbanks.

As of Wednesday, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) had bought around 560 tonnes of pork and spent just under $4 million on the initiative, RNZ reported.

The Ministry said there were around two weeks left of the nine-week progamme, with another 70 tonnes of pork expected to be purchased during that time. 

David Baines chief executive of NZ Pork, says demand for meat still hasn't returned to pre-COVID-19 levels and the Government support has been vital up to now.

"It's still a challenge," Baines told RNZ on Thursday.

"We're finding that the normal market is not back to normal. But with the Government agreeing to purchase some of the surplus pork and provide it through to foodbanks that has formed a really key part of our range of options to move surplus product through the supply chain." 

He said the arrangement had enabled the industry to "avert a welfare crisis on farms".

"We're very grateful that the Government has been able to work with us on that and we're just looking forward with a lot of interest and concern that we're able to continue to manage the potential oversupply problem."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the support was put in place so thousands of pigs didn't go to waste during the lockdown.

Now that the country was transitioning back to a more normal situation it was time for the support to end, he said.

"What was a challenging situation became one of benefit for a large number of Kiwis," O'Connor told RNZ. 

"Now the industry has to get on and look for new opportunities in the domestic market."   

Earlier this week, NZ Pork called on Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway to "urgently" review the country's policy on allowing skilled migrant workers into the country.

The group said despite Government efforts to fill labour gaps by training up Kiwis, not enough people had shown interest and the sector was "very vulnerable" to the shortage.