CHRISTMAS could be ruined this year as there are fears a turkey shortage is on the horizon due to a lack of workers to process the birds.
Trade bodies the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Poultry Council, and the National Farmers Union (NFU) have all warned there could be fewer turkeys on the shelves this festive period.
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Turkeys in the UK are usually processed by seasonal workers from European countries such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
But due to coronavirus restrictions, the vast majority of people entering the UK from overseas have to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, which includes those travelling from all of the countries listed above.
NFU chief poultry adviser Aimee Mahony said: “We estimate around 8,500 skilled seasonal poultry workers are needed to get the nation’s favourite Christmas dinner centrepiece on our tables – with around half of the people required in this profession coming from other European countries.”
This lack of overseas workers creates two issues; the first, is that fewer workers are likely to come over this year as they’re put off by quarantining or their bosses don’t want to pay them to self-isolate for two weeks.
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The second issue is that as the workers who do travel will have to quarantine for two weeks, their bosses will have to pay for this down time meaning they’ve effectively lost two weeks’ worth of production.
Given this means fewer turkeys being processed, the trade bodies say this in turn could push up production costs, and could lead to retailers charging more too.
British Poultry Council, chief executive, Richard Griffiths, said: “If these vacancies cannot be filled, it will have a significant impact on the production of, and therefore cost of food – all of which will pose a risk to affordability and potentially force people to go without food this Christmas.”
The trade associations are now calling on the government to ditch the quarantine period for seasonal poultry workers as it did with seasonal fruit workers over the summer.
Back in April, specialist jets were chartered to bring over European fruit pickers who were exempt from quarantine rules so long as they remained on farms.
The associations add that it’s not simply a case of farms being able to hire unemployed or furloughed British workers as this is a skilled job requiring “lengthy” training and licensing that these foreign workers have already undertaken as they return to these roles each year.
Norman Bagley, head of policy at AIMS said: “Time is running out; travel plans need to be made, turkey farmers need to know that the labour is available and farmers’ customers – be they shops, caterers or the public through direct sales – need to be confident their annual Christmas turkey will be available.”
But missing out on Christmas isn’t a let off for the birds themselves as the turkeys – around 9million of them according to the British Poultry Council – were already bred before the pandemic took force.
This means those turkeys that aren’t processed by Christmas will still be slaughtered for sale later in the new year, but of course farmers will have have missed the peak festive demand by then.
It comes amid concerns turkey farmers will already struggle to sell bigger birds due to regional lockdowns that mean different households can’t meet inside, and no-one in England can meet more than six people at one time.
A government spokesperson for Defra said: “We recognise and appreciate our dedicated farmers who continue to work tirelessly during this challenging time to keep our nation fed.
“We are working with industry to assess needs and ensure a steady supply of British turkeys as we approach Christmas.”