The government is expected to back down over temporary visas for foreign butchers, as the food industry said ministers were beginning to listen to its warnings about the impact of staffing shortages.
The expected intervention comes several weeks after farmers began culling healthy livestock because of a lack of staff in abattoirs where the animals are meant to be processed.
A backlog of as many as 120,000 pigs were estimated to have been stranded on farms long after they should have gone to slaughter, with pens becoming overcrowded and farmers forced to call in specialist teams to dispose of the surplus animals.
The meat industry is one of the many sectors of the UK economy struggling with labour shortages exacerbated by Covid-19 and Brexit, while a lack of HGV drivers has also disrupted supply chains.
The National Pig Association said it had received unconfirmed reports that the government was “set to issue a number of temporary visas to allow processors to employ foreign nationals in abattoirs to help with the processing of the backlog of pigs on UK farms”.
The food industry will be watching closely to see whether the measures announced remove the requirement for trained butchers from abroad to speak fluent English.
A processing industry source told the Guardian: “There is a feeling that at long last government is listening and they are assuring us that they are looking at options.”
According to the British Meat Processors Association, non-UK workers account for two-thirds of workforce that is missing 15% of the 95,000 people the meat-processing industry usually employes. Reports suggest about 1,000 temporary visas could be issued.
In the face of mounting food and fuel shortages, the government announced last month that it would grant 5,000 temporary visas to non-UK lorry drivers – although senior minister admitted on Wednesday that only 20 had been issued so far. Also promised was a further 5,500 visas for seasonal poultry workers that would last until 31 December.
But these extra visa allocations do not cover butchers or workers at processing plants that deal with pork and other meats.
The UK’s food and drink industry has been calling for a special year-long “Covid-19 recovery visa” to recruit overseas workers help ease disruption in the food supply chain and to allow the hiring of butchers, chefs and other food industry workers.
Butchers and meat processing staff are not included in the seasonal worker pilot scheme, which issues 30,000 annual permits for non-UK national to work as horticulture labourers, picking fruit and crops.