Starve your pigs and watch them grow

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Once upon a time, in a land still enjoying the benefits of Conservative rule, the government decided that the country was falling behind its competitors in the vital area of pig production. The volume and quality of pigs was well below the standard of German pork and Italian ham. If they didn't do something, the country was going to become a nation of Third World vegetarians.

This was too big a task to be entrusted to any of the great departments of state, where ministers would have to take the blame for anything that went wrong. So the government established a quango, the Fatter Porker Feeding Council ( FPFC).

Its task was to improve the volume and the quality of pig production and ensure an adequate supply of pork to feed the nation. The quango travelled overseas to learn the secrets of its competitors' success. The answer? It all hinged on the feeding.

Apparently, the more complex the feeding methodology, the fatter the pigs. So the council set about designing an elaborate system with all the necessary steers, mechanisms, levers, incentives, to ensure the pigs grew fatter. Its central belief was that the less food there was, the thicker and more arcane should grow the manual which told you how to apply for the food.

Every farm was given a ration in line with its previous feeding levels or its average level of feeding (ALF). Expansion was to be funded and guaranteed. For every new pig reared, there would be an extra bucket of food. Of course, it was a smaller bucket for the extra pigs, presumably because they were the runt of the litter and would survive on less or rob from others.

But it worked a treat. The more pigs, the more buckets, and the smaller the buckets, the faster your ALF would drop. And the lower your ALF, the more pigs you were allowed to feed. It was a tremendous model. The less you fed your pigs the more they grew.

Unfortunately, the whole business was still too simple. The lack of complexity in the feeding methodology was beginning to show in the quality of the pigs. The council needed to know how many Full-Pig Equivalents each farm was producing. Pigs, as such, were felt to be an inappropriate measure. So, a standard measure of pig production known as the "pig unit" was introduced and - this was the master stroke - the number of units in any one farm bore no relationship whatsoever to the number of actual pigs on the farm.

Now farmers are crafty folk. And pig farmers know more than most about getting their snouts in the trough. It soon dawned on them that if there was no real relationship between units and pigs, you didn't need to rear any pigs at all to collect your buckets of food, reduce your ALF drastically and race on to collect even more buckets. All you needed was a deal with a bacon factory or a pork sausage producer and - bingo! - ready-made units in a packet with your farm's logo on it. This form of franchising, in which the pig food is made available to the producer only after the pig has been slaughtered, is known as output-related feeding.

Inevitably this piece of ingenious practice came to the attention of the DFEE (Department for Efficient Eating) which was in charge of the whole pig-fattening programme. It was horrified at the number of buckets it had committed itself to and decided to cancel its buckets to everybody.

But of course, at the FPFC, there were important careers riding on the ability of the sector to grow at the required rate, and, at this point, it came up with its best wheeze yet. Start to rear extra pigs and the council would give you empty buckets to feed them with. That way your ALF would drop quickly. If the pigs survived, your bucket would be half-filled a year later, after the pigs had gone. Of course, if the pigs died, you didn't need the food you hadn't been given and you had to return the empty buckets full, at the expense of the surviving pigs. I expect there was a rush from farms to accept the offer.

Forgive me the fairy tale. It is, of course, pure fantasy. Thank God we live in a rational system where pigs are fed on any old leftover slops scrounged from the waste bins of commercial food producers.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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