In order to tackle these problems, EU Member States yesterday gave a favourable opinion to a European Commission proposal to reintroduce export refunds for pig carcasses and cuts for a limited period. The refund will be set at €40 per 100kg and will be valid for all third countries (except the 12 acceding and candidate countries).
In addition, the exports have to be carried out before the end of April 2004. Following yesterday's vote, the Commission will formally adopt the proposal so that it can enter into force on 27 January 2004.
"Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures," said Franz Fischler, EU Commissioner for agriculture, rural development and fisheries. "The temporary reintroduction of export refunds for pig meat is the last resort, after having exhausted all other means.
"This measure will help pig farmers in the EU who have been shaken by an extraordinary crisis."
The products concerned are fresh or frozen half-carcases, all main cuts, fresh (such as hams, shoulders, fore-ends and bellies) and certain cuts, frozen.
Pig farmers in the EU have been requesting EU intervention for months. After a long period of falling prices between October and December 2003, the decline in pig meat prices came to a halt and price levels have remained stable at a very low level of € 112/ 100 kg.
In some Member states, such as Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Austria, market prices are even substantially lower than the EU average.
The situation is Denmark is especailly dire. the country's pig industry is of greater importance to the national economy than in perhaps any other European country.
Every year, 25 million pigs are slaughtered, which represents 10 per cent of total pork processing in the EU. For a country with an area of 43,000 square kilometres (60 per cent the size of Ireland) and a population of 5.3 million people, this industry plays an important role in Danish society.
"British pig producers are also facing a desperate situation," said Stewart Houston, chairman of the National Pig Association. "This is a Europe-wide problem and needs to be tackled by the EU. With prices even higher in mainland Europe, feed is being sucked out of the UK accelerating the problems here."
Last month the Commission responded by introducing a private storage scheme to alleviate the market pressures. 85 000 tonnes of pig meat have already been bought into this scheme to date. In addition, a radical new test to be used after vaccination against classical swine fever (CSF) was approved, which made it possible, in case of emergency vaccination with a marker vaccine, to distinguish vaccinated pigs from pigs naturally infected with CSF.
But although private storage has stopped the fall in prices by stabilising them, they still are at a very low level, and there is still no sign of them picking up.