Most North Antrim Members are here today, and the House will hear a great deal from us on the subject of pigs because the Agivey bacon factory is an important employer in our constituency. It was with some relief that we heard of the acquisition of Unipork by Unigate although, as Dr Paisley has ably pointed out, there seems to be a little more to it than meets the eye. By investing £27 million in the takeover, that firm is showing confidence in the future of the pig industry in the area. It remains to be seen whose pigs it will put through the factory.
We have to focus on the conduct of the Government and their attitude towards the structure of the pig industry: the unilateral legislation that forced our pig producers to get rid of the stall-and-tether method of keeping sows; the range of health and hygiene requirements placed on the rearing, slaughter and processing of pigs, which added considerably to the cost of producing pork products.
I stress the word "unilaterally" because the same measures have not been applied elsewhere in Europe. In the future that may mean that United Kingdom pork produced to the standards required by regulation will set the benchmark price.
At the moment pork producers elsewhere in Europe are not applying the same standards and are supplying pork to the pig-meat industry in the United Kingdom. This is yet another area where the United Kingdom, by assiduously applying regulation, has disadvantaged its own producers to the benefit of those in the rest of Europe.
This has coincided with a period when both the pound and the green pound, which sets our prices, are particularly strong. It has coincided with a period when pig production has risen by 10% over the previous year and, worse still, with a drop in the demand for pig products due to the financial crisis in Russia and parts of South-East Asia.
This is the situation that industry dreads. It has increased production; its production costs have gone up; and its market has been reduced by factors beyond its control and which it could not have foreseen.
These problems apply equally on the mainland. The difference in Northern Ireland is that we have come face-to-face with the problem sooner. Due to the loss of the Agivey bacon factory the build-up of pigs on Northern Ireland farms was much more rapid.
It is almost inconceivable that the Government can be so lacklustre in their approach to this problem. Any of these factors, if applied to some other industry, would have caused an equally serious problem.
The problem of a strong pound is universal. The whole of British industry is complaining about it. Other industries have lost part of their market due to financial problems elsewhere in the world. However, the pig industry has to face every one of these problems and in its case the only person who is losing money is the farmer. The loss is not being shared the whole way up the production chain. I feel that the Assembly should give careful consideration to the profit margins of the retailers.
One of the most unfair aspects of the pig crisis is that the best producers are the ones who are being burdened with the greatest debts. They were the producers who acted most promptly to take on board the new regulations, who accumulated debts to produce a better pig which would comply with the regulations due to take effect by the end of the year. They have invested in a pig industry which now has a distinctly reduced market.
This is not the first time that there has been difficulty in the pig industry. From time to time in the farming industry, there are periods of overproduction, lost markets and reduced profit margins.
This is the first time that so many parts of the agriculture industry are suffering from variations on the same problem. It is also peculiar how, just as only the pig farmer is losing money in this crisis, only the beef farmer is suffering from BSE. The meat processors are not having any difficulty at all. The Department, therefore, has an immediate responsibility to address this issue and, furthermore, being the custodian of the industry, it must look to the future. It would be daft to address this problem only for it to recur in a short time. We must be sure that we have a viable and sustainable industry for the future.
Since it invested so heavily in Northern Ireland, Unigate clearly believes that we have the highest standards of health, hygiene, pig production and pig processing available. These are essential to the future of the food business and, in due course, pork produced in the United Kingdom will set the benchmark and be the premium product. If we cannot get immediate action to address the acute financial problems of the pig producers or solve the problem of disposing of live pigs, that future — which may well be right, may well be rosy — will never come for many of our pig farmers.
We have a long history of successful pig production in Northern Ireland, and pig producers have coped with tight margins, with loss-making situations, with blue ear disease and with swine vesicular disease and have come through them all. We have a very high standard of pig husbandry in Northern Ireland. It would be an absolute disgrace if all that were to be thrown away by a lack of action now.