Worker shortage could rule out UK turkeys for Christmas, farming sector warns

Farming and meat industry bosses have warned MPs that acute labour shortfalls could result in a shortage of turkeys produced in the UK for Christmas.

Bosses told the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Select Committee that non-UK workers leaving during the pandemic contributed to a shortfall in staff numbers.

Graeme Dear, chairman of the British Poultry Council, has told MPs there is a “likelihood” there will be a shortage of UK-produced turkeys for Christmas, warning produce may have to be imported from Europe.

“We have been given access through the seasonal workers scheme for up to 5,500 but that finishes on December 31,” he told MPs.

“We would have loved to have known about that in June, and therefore could have placed enough turkeys for a full Christmas.

“We will do our utmost to make sure that Christmas is as normal as it can be, but there is a likelihood that there will be a shortage – had we known back in June or July, that would have been fixed.

“Around 90% of our shortages are in the processing plants, and the irony is that we may find ourselves having to import turkey from France and Poland for a British Christmas, probably with some of the very workers we trained and left to go back to their homelands.”

Mr Dear said that the poultry sector is currently seeing shortages of around 16% across workforces.

Meanwhile, the farming industry warned that facilities are being “mothballed” and huge quantities of produce are going to waste due to labour shortages.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, told the committee that almost a quarter of this year’s daffodil crop was wasted as it could not be picked.

Glasshouses that should be growing crops, including tomatoes, are being mothballed (PA)

He added: “The food waste we are seeing at a farm level, whether courgettes, apples going unpicked, autumn raspberries not being picked at the moment and tragic culls going on in the pig sector, is completely inexcusable.

“It is within the gift of this Government to put solutions in place which will mean that this doesn’t happen next year, but that needs to happen urgently because the lack of confidence we’ve got across multiple sectors means investment plans are put on hold and many are mothballing facilities.

“We have glasshouses that should be growing tomatoes which are currently being mothballed because they don’t know if they will have the labour to pick them while energy costs are also spiralling and having an impact.”

The UK’s pork sector echoed concerns that labour shortages are resulting in a backlog.

Charlie Dewhirst, policy adviser of the National Pig Association, told MPs: “What’s happened with the pig sector is that the shortage at the processing sites has left more pigs on the farms and unable to enter the food supply chains.

“Some have reached the position where there is no contingency left to stock those animals and they have been culled, in a welfare cull, and not entered the food chain.

“It is a deeply distressing time for the industry.”