Labour shortages could spark a major food crisis

UK supermarket shelves could soon be bare, with panic buying leading to the worst food shortages in more than 75 years, unless critical issues currently threatening UK food supplies are solved promptly, the founder of one of Britain’s biggest food processors has claimed.

Ranjit Singh Boparan,
Ranjit Singh Boparan,

Ranjit Singh Boparan, founder and president of the Two Sisters Food Group, one of the country’s biggest processors of chicken and turkey, said that while the food sector had seen many challenges over the years, nothing compared with the ‘perfect storm’ which had been brought together by a toxic cocktail of events occurring at the same time.

“It started with the pandemic – and in the last week or so with ‘pingdemic’,” said Boparan. “But since May this year the operating environment has deteriorated so profoundly I can see no other outcome than major food shortages in the UK.”

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Warning that the supply of chicken and turkey were under threat, he continued: “Our retail partners and the wider supply chain have worked together closer than ever before to ensure we retain food supply and this is of huge credit to everyone.

“But we are at crisis point” he warned. Accusing the government of sticking its head in the sand he said that the ‘Pingdemic’ on its own was not the issue.

“There’s fundamental structural changes going on here that need sorting.”

Boparan questioned why the government was still paying furlough to around two million people when there was an on-going labour crisis.

“Why is it not reclassifying our frontline workers to the correct status so we have a corridor open for EU workers into the UK?” he added.

Spelling out the current challenges facing his business and the wider food and retail sector Boparan said Brexit had acutely reduced the number of available workers across the food sector.

“Two Sisters has seen, on average, 15 per cent labour shortages for its 16,000 workforce this year, the majority of whom work in chicken and ready meal production facilities.”

Stating that Brexit had not been a success he added: “Trading conditions with the new regime for import and export has increased complexity and administration and this will continue indefinitely, causing major on-cost and resource difficulties.”

Taken together with the additional costs and impediments of the Covid pandemic he said the food sector was facing unique, era-defining challenges which had ‘come to a head’ in the past 12 weeks.

“This cannot be sustained indefinitely. The critical labour issue alone means we walk a tightrope every week at the moment. We’re just about coping, but I can see if no support is forthcoming – and urgently – from government, then shelves will be empty, food waste will rocket simply because it cannot be processed or delivered, and the shortages we saw last year will be peanuts in comparison to what could come.”

Calling for action from the government Boparan said that there needed to be a rethink on the barriers to recruiting unskilled labour from abroad, adding that without urgent action the UK could face an unprecedented food crisis.

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