For Britain’s chicken farmers, Brexit and COVID brew a perfect storm By Reuters



© Reuters. A employee processes chickens on the manufacturing line on the Soanes Poultry manufacturing facility close to Driffield, Britain, October 12, 2021. Picture taken October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble


By Kate Holton and James Davey

DRIFFIELD, England (Reuters) – When Nigel Upson checks the plucked chicken carcasses dangling from a rotating line at his poultry plant in England, he sees money haemorrhaging out of his enterprise from a collision of occasions that has distressed each a part of the farm-to-fork provide chain.

Like meals producers throughout Britain, Upson was hit this yr by an exodus of japanese European employees who, deterred by Brexit paperwork, left en masse when COVID restrictions lifted, compounding his already hovering value of feed and gasoline.

Such is the size of the hit, he lower output by 10% and hiked wages by 11%, a rise that was instantly matched or bettered by neighbouring employers within the northeast of England.

Increases in the price of meals will certainly observe.

“We’re being hit from all sides,” Upson informed Reuters in entrance of 4 huge, spotless sheds that home 33,000 chickens apiece. “It is, to use the phrase, a perfect storm. Something will have to give.”

The deepening issues at Upson’s Soanes Poultry plant in east Yorkshire are a microcosm of the pressures constructing on companies internationally’s fifth largest financial system as they emerge from COVID to confront the post-Brexit commerce limitations erected with Europe.

In the broader meals sector, operators have elevated wages by as a lot as 30% in some circumstances simply to retain workers, doubtless forcing an finish to an financial mannequin that led supermarkets corresponding to Tesco (OTC:) to supply among the lowest costs in Europe.

Following the departure of European employees who usually did the roles that British employees did not need, retailers could should import extra.

While all main economies have been hit by provide chain issues and a labour scarcity after the pandemic, Britain’s robust new immigration guidelines have made it more durable to get well, companies say.

Already a driver scarcity has led to a lack of gasoline at gasoline stations and gaps on grocery store cabinets, whereas chicken restaurant chain Nandos ran out of chicken.

The Bank of England is weighing up how a lot of a current soar in inflation will show long-lasting, requiring it to push up rates of interest from their all-time low.


For the agricultural companies located close to the flat, open fields of Yorkshire, Upson says the scenario is dire.

Although he says he wants 138 employees for his plant, he not too long ago needed to function with underneath 100. Staff turnover is excessive.

Richard Griffiths, head of the British Poultry Council, says that with Europeans making up about 60% of the sector, the business has misplaced greater than 15% of its workers.

When numbers are notably tight Upson will get his gross sales, advertising and marketing and finance workers to don the lengthy white coats and hairnets which are wanted on the processing line.

“Three weeks ago the offices were empty, everyone was in the factory,” he stated, of a enterprise that provides high-end birds for butchers, farm outlets and eating places. For the run-up to Christmas, he could look to college students.

On troublesome days Soanes can solely ship absolutely the fundamentals – chickens piled into packing containers. They shouldn’t have time to truss the birds for retail or put them into separate, Soanes-labelled packaging that instructions a greater promoting worth.

Around 3 tonnes of offal that’s usually bought every week goes within the skip because of the lack of workers to course of it.

The sudden rise in wages and the drop in output additionally come on prime of spikes in the price of animal feed, power and gasoline, carbon dioxide, cardboard and plastic packaging.

“We’ve just had to say to our customers, sorry, the price is going up,” Upson stated, shaking his head. “We’re losing money, big style.” The poorest shoppers can be hardest hit, he stated.

Business house owners have urged the federal government to quickly ease visa guidelines whereas they do the workers coaching and automation of processes wanted to assist shut Britain’s 20-year, 20% productiveness hole with the United States, Germany and France.

But removed from altering course, Prime Minister Boris Johnson says companies want to chop their habit to low cost overseas labour now, spend money on expertise and provide well-paid jobs to among the 1.5 million unemployed individuals in Britain.

Upson says there may be a scarcity of employees in rural communities and with some 1.1 million job vacancies within the nation, individuals will be picky about which they choose. “Working in a chicken factory isn’t everybody’s idea of a career,” he stated.

While 5,500 overseas poultry employees will probably be allowed to work in Britain earlier than Christmas, and the UK will provide emergency visas to 800 overseas butchers to keep away from a mass pig cull sparked by a scarcity in abattoirs, the business says it wants extra.

As for automation, the manufacturing of complete birds is already extremely mechanised, and whereas it might be used extra for boneless meat and comfort cuts, the associated fee is prohibitive for a small operator.

The National Farmers’ Union and different meals our bodies stated in a current report that elements of the UK’s meals and drink provide chain have been “precariously close to market failure”, limiting the power to spend money on automation.

Soanes has an annual turnover of round 25 million kilos ($34 million). In the final three years its house owners have spent 5 million on enlargement. Now output should match the dimensions of the workforce.


According to “Chicken King” Ranjit Singh Boparan, founding father of the UK’s largest producer, 2 Sisters, meals costs should now rise.

“Food is too cheap,” he stated. “In relative terms, a chicken today is cheaper to buy than it was 20 years ago. How can it be right that a whole chicken costs less than a pint of beer?”

Upson says he can get a greater worth promoting bones for pet meals than he can for a leg of chicken.

For main producers, the primary barrier to greater costs is usually the buying energy of the largest supermarkets, which have for the reason that 2008 monetary crash battled to maintain costs down for key objects corresponding to fruit, greens, bread, meat, fish and poultry.

Sentinel Management Consultants’ CEO David Sables, who coaches suppliers on find out how to negotiate with British supermarkets, stated determined meals producers had already pushed by way of some worth rises, and he expects one other spherical to return in early subsequent yr.

With chicken a so-called “known value item”, of which consumers instinctively know the associated fee, he stated supermarkets would doubtless push the value rises on to different items. He described the chicken sector as an “absolute horror show”.

One senior govt at a main grocery store group, who requested to not be named, stated retailers have been underneath strain to “hold the line” on key costs, and that all of them watch one another.

“If you see one of the big six move (on price), you can bet your damnedest others will take about 12 hours to follow,” he stated.

Back in Yorkshire, Upson and others are praying they do. While he acknowledges Johnson’s need to maneuver to a “high-wage, high-skills” financial system, he stated not all jobs match that invoice.

“What skill do you need to put chicken in a box?” he asks. “We can put wages up, but prices will go up.” He is beginning to despair. “Normally you can just be pragmatic and say, it will sort itself out. But I’m not sure where this one ends.”

($1 = 0.7277 kilos)

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