Farming: Meet the champions of the pig meat industry

Sue Woodall at home in North Cave.
Sue Woodall at home in North Cave.

Twenty-five years on from their first appearance Ladies in Pigs still garners a smile from the general public at shows, in schools and recently in the centre of Scunthorpe with their red and white uniform and mobile roadshow.

Sue Woodall, the East Riding-based chairwoman of what has become affectionately known as LIPS, believes their support for the pig sector is just as important today as it was a quarter of a century ago, particularly with the price at its lowest in eight years.

Sue Woodhall and her Ladies in Pigs team.

Sue Woodhall and her Ladies in Pigs team.

Sue and her team of ladies based around the UK concentrate on areas they can influence – those buying pig meat products from supermarkets, butcher’s shops and farm shops; educating everyone from the young to the daily meal makers; and applying pressure over correct labelling.

“Consumer buying habits have changed and today the average time spent cooking the day’s main meal is just 30 minutes,” she said. “It’s all about slow cookers, one pot and ready meals. That’s what we have to be in tune with when we are demonstrating our recipes.

“Bacon and sausages are still the number one products and the recent surge for pulled pork has certainly helped. It has made the shoulder joint much more popular, but really there is so much on a pig that can be used. We need to show just what can be done and inspire those cooking to realise the flexibility of pork products in making up so many meals.

“Our Moroccan style minced pork is amazing, but pork mince isn’t used very much. When I speak to audiences of around 50 at a time it’s only about four who have ever had it.

“That’s where education of what can be cooked is vital to pork’s future. We could do with more TV chefs getting on board. I bumped into James Martin at an event recently and asked why he didn’t use it more in his Saturday Kitchen programme.”

When the price falls, cheap imports are usually blamed and Ladies in Pigs has campaigned to ensure that consumers understand what they are purchasing. They also scrutinise individual supermarkets.

“Ladies in Pigs was started by Glenda Montgomery and Miranda Shufflebotham who were concerned about the lack of British-produced pork in their local supermarkets,” said Sue.

“Even now we’re still struggling against imported pig meat. We launched Porkwatch to monitor not just how much British and imported pork is on display in supermarkets but also where it is positioned and how it is labelled. There are many consumers who believe they are buying British when they’re not.

“The only sure way is if it has the Red Tractor logo. Some use a Union Jack on packaging but read closely and you will find that the meat has not come from British livestock, it has only been packaged here.

“In our recent Porkwatch surveys, the likes of Aldi and Lidl are coming up trumps with lots of Red Tractor pork, but Asda and Tesco are not very good. The horsegate scandal made the public far more aware of labelling.”

The UK pig industry has changed massively since 1991 when Sue attended her first meeting as the East Yorkshire branch was set up at the Bell Hotel in Driffield. Ladies in Pigs has changed too.

“The country’s pig herd has declined by a third and because of imports we are now only 55 per cent self-sufficient. Most smaller pig producers haven’t been able to survive and have either come out altogether or now have pigs on a contract-based bed and breakfast basis for the larger producers,” she said.

“Our Yorkshire and Norfolk regions, the two main pig areas being the East Riding and Norfolk, now have around 35-40 members that meet up two or three times a year.

“When we first started there were regional groups holding monthly and quarterly get-togethers aimed solely at what we could do to support and promote British pork, but email and social media has made life a lot easier and I now co-ordinate everything from our central office at home in North Cave.

“We’ve moved on massively from selling piggy pens and asking for donations towards the bacon sandwiches we served in those early days.”