‘No turkey shortage at Christmas’ as overseas staff boost UK workforce | Food & drink industry

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Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of East Anglian turkey producer Bernard Matthews, said the first workers would arrive in the next few days as it prepared for the busy festive season.

Boparan said: “With just a few weeks to go until Christmas, it is very good news to be able to report that here we are in mid-November, and we’re well on the way to plugging the job gaps for the massive volume increases we get during this time of year.

“This means we should be able to fulfil all our projected orders for turkeys and there will be enough turkeys to go around. Everyone should be able to source their Christmas turkey this year, which is great news.”

Bernard Matthews and Boparan’s 2 Sisters Food Group produce about a third of all the poultry products consumed by people in the UK.

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The group’s 600 farms and 16 factories, which employ 18,000 people, are short of about 10% of their ideal workforce – or about 1,800 roles. However, that has reduced from a shortage of about 15% earlier in the year.

The government announced in September that 5,500 poultry workers from overseas would be able to work in the UK ahead of Christmas. The temporary visa scheme was introduced amid concerns that new post-Brexit immigration rules combined with the impact of the pandemic had led to a record number of food manufacturing workers returning to their home countries, leaving poultry processing plants with huge labour shortages.

Boparan said he hoped that a similar scheme would be in place for next year with an earlier start date for processing visas.

He has previously warned that a shortage of labour would mean less choice and potentially empty shelves and higher prices for shoppers because of wage inflation.

Last month Boparan said the cost of chicken was set to rise by more than 10%, adding that food in Britain was currently “too cheap”.

On Wednesday, he said: “Labour as a key structural challenge for our sector is here for 12 months of the year, and it’s one that’s not going to go away.

“We simply don’t want to see our industry shrinking when the demand is as big as ever, especially at Christmas. It would be silly to plug any gaps by using imports, for instance. We don’t think the British consumer wants to see that.”

Boparan’s latest comments come as the Food Standards Agency wrote to meat producers to reassure them that it was putting in place additional measures to ensure that processing would not be widely held up by a shortage of vets.

Colin Sullivan, chief operating officer of the FSA, told industry journal Food Manufacture that there may be “sporadic interruptions” when it would have to work with individual businesses on when vets could be provided to approve conditions in abattoirs, an essential part of the slaughtering process.

The FSA said there were about a 20% fewer vets than then “optimum level” because of high demand across Europe and the impact of the pandemic and “migration patterns”. However, it said it had put up extra funds to improve pay to retain sufficient number of vets alongside other measures such as enabling overseas workers with a slightly lower level of English to carry out certain restricted jobs, for example.

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