Food industry warns of empty shelves and panic buying – Eastern Daily Press

Food and farming industry leaders have warned of empty shelves and panic buying this winter unless urgent action is taken to resolve a workforce crisis.

A dozen leading industry organisations have written to the prime minister demanding the urgent implementation of a “Covid Recovery Visa” – allowing food producers and processors to alleviate crippling labour shortages.

Many Eastern European workers, which the supply chain relied on, have travelled home due to Brexit and Covid factors.

The industry estimates there are 500,000 vacancies across the food sector, resulting in empty supermarket shelves and, in some cases, food left on farms unable to be picked or processed.

The letter also asks for a commitment to a “permanent, revised and expanded” Seasonal Worker Scheme to meet the needs of fruit, vegetable and salad growers. 

It says: “The food and farming sector remains on a knife edge due to the unprecedented shortages of workers across the entire supply chain. 

“The situation is not improving, in fact, images of empty supermarket shelves are becoming commonplace as labour shortages bite. As we move towards Christmas, there is a substantial threat of food inflation directly impacting the poorest families.

“That is why the entire UK food supply chain from farm supply to retail outlets are united in calling for an emergency Covid Recovery Visa to open up new recruitment opportunities as a matter of urgency. Without it more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try and get through the winter.

“It is a travesty that this is happening in parallel with UK food producers disposing of perfectly edible food as it either cannot be picked, packed, processed or transported to the end customer.”

Gary Ford is East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers’ Union, one of the organisations signing the letter. He said: “We are calling for urgent action now to alleviate crippling labour shortages across the supply chain, from farm to fork. The clock is ticking and time is running out.

“This is of concern across our farming sector. For example, we’ve heard from growers who are scaling back production because they haven’t got the workers to pick and pack produce such as cucumbers and peppers, our vital poultry sector cannot find enough people for the crucial Christmas period and sugar beet growers are struggling to get beet delivered to the factory at the start of this year’s campaign.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited.

“This letter is a clarion call from the entire UK food supply chain for an emergency Covid Recovery Visa to open up new recruitment opportunities. Without it, the fear is that more shelves will go empty and more good quality food will be wasted.”

The shortage of meat processing workers has also created a growing backlog of pigs on East Anglia’s farms.

That situation threatened to worsen due to a shortage of carbon dioxide used in the slaughter process – although those fears were eased earlier this week after the government struck a deal to restart two production factories.

Norfolk pig farmer Rob Mutimer, of Swannington Farm to Fork near Reepham, who is also chairman of the National Pig Association, said: “We are very relieved, but it does not clear our backlog of pigs and we have got to find a way of bringing more labour into the sector.

“We are desperate for the government to open up some short-term Covid recovery visas to get the food chain running again.”

A government spokesperson said the UK’s supply chain is “highly resilient” and has coped well with recent pressures. 

Defra said it is also working with the food industry and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to raise awareness of career opportunities for UK workers to “reduce the sector’s dependency on seasonal migrant labour”.

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