Meat

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British ‘chicken king’ warns of serious food crisis

Great Britain may be facing its worst food crisis in 75 years. Shortages of chicken and turkey are already noticeable and worse is yet to come. The chicken and wider food industry have been hit by a perfect storm.
2 Sisters Food Group Group CE and owner, Ranjit Singh Boparan, warns of a serious food crisis in the UK. Photo: ANP
2 Sisters Food Group Group CE and owner, Ranjit Singh Boparan, warns of a serious food crisis in the UK. Photo: ANP

That warning comes from Ranjit Singh Boparan, often nicknamed Britain’s ‘chicken king’ as founder, owner and president of one of the largest chicken and food producers, the 2 Sisters Food Group. His company processes over 10 million birds a week in the UK, the Netherlands and Poland, and supplies a third of all the poultry products eaten in the UK every day. The company also produces ready-meals, often with chicken, as well as beef products.

“Things have to change or we’ll see the worst food shortages in 75 years.”

But that business is facing serious problems now, Boparan says. The wealthy businessman from Birmingham doesn’t seek the limelight and hardly appears in the media. Earlier this summer, however, he didn’t mince his words with a warning that Britain is on the verge of its most serious food crisis since World War II. “We are finding ourselves confronted by unique, era-defining challenges for the food sector. The supply of chicken and turkey is under threat. Things have to change or we’ll see the worst food shortages in 75 years.”

Pingdemic affects millions of workers

One of the issues is temporary, it is hoped. This summer the UK was hit for weeks by what was known as the ‘pingdemic’. Millions of workers had to quarantine at home after they had received a ping from a coronavirus app telling them they had been in the vicinity of an infected person. Food companies, supermarkets and transport companies suddenly saw a large part of their workforce not turning up for work, leading to empty shelves in most supermarkets. But, says Ranjit Boparan, the pingdemic isn’t the problem affecting us – it’s masking other fundamental issues.

”...we are at a crisis point.”

“I have seen lots of change over the years – but nothing compares to now. The use of the term ‘perfect storm’ has become something of a cliché but never has that been truer than it is today. No one could possibly have predicted that this toxic cocktail of factors would come together at this time. It started with the pandemic, but since May this year the operating environment has deteriorated so profoundly that I can see no other outcome than major food shortages in the UK. 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 a crisis point,” he warns.

Brexit, and a 15% labour shortage

One of the major causes is Brexit. Since the UK left the European Union on 1 January this year, living and working in the UK has become so much more complicated for citizens from EU countries that many have left. Other workers who returned to their home country because of the pandemic restrictions don’t seem to be coming back.

Boparan: ''Empty shelves started with the pandemic 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.'' Photo: ANP/Tom Wilkinson
Boparan: ''Empty shelves started with the pandemic 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.'' Photo: ANP/Tom Wilkinson

This has led to serious labour shortages in the chicken industry, farming and food processing, in general, as well as in transport. Many food companies relied heavily on EU workers who, in some cases, made up over 70% of their total workforce. 2 Sisters Food Group, for example, has a 15% labour shortage this year in its 16,000 workforce.

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The British Poultry Council has warned that it is far from sure whether there will be turkey on British tables this Christmas. “The problem is that we do not know if we will have the workforce this year. Historically, and in the absence of UK labour (regardless of level of pay), producers have brought in EU labour to slaughter, dress, pack and dispatch our Christmas centrepiece. Under post-Brexit immigration policy bringing in new non-UK labour is considerably more difficult and costly, and pretty much impossible for a job expected to last only up to 12 weeks. It would be irresponsible to grow more birds than can be slaughtered and processed, which is incredibly frustrating when the demand is there for quality British products. If we cannot meet demand then it is likely that – in a bitter twist – we will see turkeys from EU countries on our shelves this Christmas,” said CE, Richard Griffiths.

“Numerous sectors and businesses have made it crystal clear that they are facing the same labour crisis as us – the ongoing loss of non-UK workers and the inability to replace them, whether with UK or non-UK labour. Poultry is half the meat we eat in this country and demand for our quality British produce has rarely been higher. Yet the birds we are growing are 5-10% down since Easter simply because we do not have the people to process them. Brexit put a fire in the belly of its believers, but the rest of us need food.”

Rising costs

Back to 2 Sisters Food Group where Boparan also points to the continuous rise of input costs for food producers. “The food sector has suffered major hits with ingredient inflation. Feed inflation is at an 8-year high. Wheat, soya and other components have risen by more than 50%; pack­aging is up by 20% and energy costs are up 30%. Some food sector items, such as stainless steel equipment, have doubled in price. 2 Sisters has also seen unprecedented wage inflation across its supply chain in skilled roles ranging from hatcheries, to farms, logistics and delivery – wage inflation is now way in excess of annual increases.”

“The critical labour issue alone means that we are walking a tightrope every week at the moment.”

He concludes: “These are unique, era-defining challenges which we started to tackle head on last year. But they’ve all come to a head in the last few weeks. Clearly, these have brought continued and intensive pressure on our business, just as they have elsewhere. This cannot be sustained indefinitely. The critical labour issue alone means that we are walking a tightrope every week at the moment. We’re just about coping but if no support is forthcoming – and urgently – from our government, I can see that 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.”

Author: Ruud Peys