Defra publishes review into labour shortages in the food supply chain

Defra publishes review into labour shortages in the food supply chain

Defra has released its long-awaited review into the labour shortages facing the meat and food sectors. The review provides recommendations aimed at helping both the Government and industry.

Shortages of skilled workers has impacted the industry at every level.

The review, chaired by John Shropshire OBE, contains 10 recommendations:

  • Implementing a Comprehensive Strategy to Enhance Sector Attractiveness
  • Access to Migrant Labour
  • Investment in Domestic Workers
  • Reformation of the Apprenticeship Levy
  • Building on Skills Supply Collaboration
  • Support for Food Career Curriculum Deliver
  • Producing a Workforce Data Strategy
  • Incentivising Automation
  • Advancing Automation Knowledge
  • A Moonshot Approach to Innovation

Shropshire said: “Our recommendations seek to provide a strategic, holistic approach to address the pressing issues. They highlight the need for policy and practice changes that span government departments, industry bodies, educational institutions, and the workforce itself. Crucially, they underscore the need for collaborative working, not only between these different stakeholder groups, but also across geographical boundaries and sectors.”

Initial industry reaction

Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said: “While we’re still working through the detail of the report, our initial impression is that the Expert Panel have successfully captured the unique and varied pressures that each sector is facing.

“One area in particular stands out, which is the need to allow more skilled and semi-skilled migrant workers into the country to take up jobs that simply don’t appeal to British workers either because of the challenging work environment or simply because of a lack of geographical mobility.

“We support their call for relaxing the initial English language requirement and their call for closer engagement by government with industry and education providers.”

He continued: “We also think that George Eustice’s comments to the BBC [today] offer a clear dose of realism that the skills we lack are often ‘dextrous human skills’ rather than academic and ‘cognitive skills’ which current immigration policy favours. He’s also right in saying that the higher cost to source people with these specific skills from abroad is ‘exacerbating’ inflation. BMPA is currently canvassing members to quantify the costs of this labour crisis over the last year and will share its findings shortly.”

Tony Goodger, marketing and communications manager for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) gave a working example of what the shortages have meant in practice for businesses: “Today, an AIMS member, established for 40 years will close it’s doors for the last time. It is not the high cost of energy or an unwillingness on the part of their customers to buy from them at the price quotes, it is simply down to their struggle to recruit and retain labour.”

He warned: “If this is not to simply be another report against which few or none of the recommendations are adopted then I fear that there will be the continued closure of businesses across the whole of the food and drink sector for years to come.”

Goodger also told Meat Management that AIMS members have reported having to turn away both domestic and export sales opportunities owing to their struggles to recruit and retain labour.

He continued: “Reading the report’s recommendations in relation to seasonal workers it is time that there was some flexibility put in place whereby instead of simply having seasonal poultry workers in the run up to Christmas to have instead seasonal meat and poultry workers for the summer and the run up to Christmas.

“We note that [yesterday] yet another ‘Seasonal Worker Visa Inquiry: Call for Evidence’ was launched by the Migration Advisory Committee (Seasonal Worker visa inquiry: call for evidence – GOV.UK ( which closes for responses on 19th September 2023. Another one! By the time they have gone through the responses the time for 2023’s seasonal workers will have passed.

“We welcome Recommendation 2 as we have been lobbying for a considerable time for the English Language Requirement to be relaxed and would urge the Government to take immediate action.

“As regards the other 9 recommendations we accept that some will take time to deliver but we must start now if we are build on the country’s food security and be part of the delivery of the Government’s ambitious target for £1trillion of Exports by 2023.”

BPC Chief Executive Richard Griffiths said: “Securing a domestic workforce is key to a truly sustainable food system – one that feeds people, tackles social inequalities with quality and affordable food, and ensures a liveable climate for all. Poultry is half the meat the nation eats. Previous emphasis on recruiting workers from abroad to support peak seasonal demand has been welcomed and, whilst improvements must be made to the visa scheme ensure it is cost effective and ultimately fit for purpose, it is proof that good things happen when we all work together.

“Applying that mindset beyond seasonal production, such as exploring barriers to investment and innovation, boosting training and supporting pathways to upskill employees, are now necessary for poultry meat businesses feeding the nation, as well as wider industries and sectors. Labour shortages are an ‘everyone problem,’ so we would like to see an intersectional approach taken to these recommendations – thinking across different Government departments, social groups and communities – to find solutions that work for everyone, that can also inform more bespoke outcomes.

“We look forward to working constructively with Government to find effective solutions, bolster skills and training in British food and farming, and ensure a pipeline of talent in British poultry to support a green economy.”

Wider food industry responses

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said: “We are pleased to see the independent panel recognises that action is needed to improve British farmers’ access to a skilled and motivated workforce. 

“Ensuring we have enough workers, both permanent and seasonal, is essential to maintaining domestic food security and providing British consumers with high quality, nutritious, climate-friendly food. Our own recent survey looking at worker shortages across the agriculture industry shows that 41% of respondents reduced the amount of food they produced due to being unable to recruit the essential workforce needed.

“The horticulture and poultry sectors have been severely impacted by worker shortages in recent years, and we welcome the panel’s recommendation to secure the Seasonal Workers Scheme beyond 2024. We have been calling for a long-term 5-year rolling scheme to guarantee businesses have the certainty they need to continue producing food.

“Our survey results also show that over 77% of respondents said difficulty in recruiting workers was down to a lack of applicants, so the panel’s focus on the need to boost recruitment, training and upskilling of domestic staff is positive to see and TIAH (The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture) has a key role to play. 

“We must now work together to solve the labour challenges impacting the industry, which is a brilliant one to work in and has many opportunities across all levels. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to the panel’s review and recommendations, which are essential in giving businesses the confidence to invest in our food security.”

Naomi Kissman, social impact director of IGD, said: “IGD has a long and proud history of working with young people in education, giving them insight into the range of careers available in the food and consumer goods industry through our programme of school workshops and virtual work experience weeks. As we accelerate the work we do in this space, we are delighted to be named in this set of recommendations as an organisation with the right skills and expertise to raise awareness of the fantastic employment opportunities in our sector.

“The food and consumer goods industry is the largest private sector employer in the UK, responsible for one in seven jobs. Now more than ever, we have a collective responsibility to build a talent pipeline for the future. Our ambition is to inspire young people and create lasting impact. Our focus will be on working with industry to build relationships locally, to explore how we can work together to create stronger pipelines of talent.”

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