Britain's Christmas lament: Meat shortages and delivery delays

A shopper looking at nearly depleted shelves in the meat aisle of a supermarket in Harpenden, Britain, on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BUNGAY, England (NYTIMES) - To understand the deep sense of anxiety Britons feel about the supply shortages afflicting the nation - and threatening disruptions to the Christmas dinner table - one need only travel to Mr Simon Watchorn's pig farm, about two hours north-east of London.

In 2014, Mr Watchorn was England's pig farmer of the year, with a thriving business. But this year, he said, the outlook for autumn is bleak.

Slaughterhouses are understaffed and are processing a smaller-than-usual number of pigs. There is a shortage of drivers to move pork to grocery stores and butcher shops. And there are fewer butchers to prepare the meat for consumers.

If the problems persist, Mr Watchorn may have to start culling some of his 7,500 pigs by the end of next month. Pigs grow about 15 pounds each week, and after a certain point, they are too big for slaughterhouses to process.

Mr Watchorn said the last time he can remember things being this bad was during an outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s.

"It's a muddle," he said. "It's worse than a muddle, it's a disaster, and I don't know when it's going to finish."

Mr Watchorn, 66, is one of many producers of food and other goods warning of a daunting winter ahead for Britons.

Shortages continued to bedevil the British economy on Monday (Oct 4) as petrol stations in London and in south-eastern England reported trouble getting fuel, and the government began deploying military staff to help ease the lack of drivers.

Supermarket consortiums say pressures from rising transport costs, labour shortages and commodity costs are already pushing prices higher and will likely continue to do so.

Exchequer chancellor Rishi Sunak acknowledged on BBC Radio on Monday there will be shortages at Christmastime. He said the government was doing "everything we can" to mitigate the supply chain issues but admitted there was no "magic wand".

Mr Watchorn, who prides himself on running a farm where all adult stock live outside, is convinced that Brexit is responsible for the current distress. He said the exodus of European workers from Britain had led to damaging labour shortages.

The British people voted to break with the European Union to reduce immigration, he believed, without realising how damaging a cliff-edge exit from the bloc would be for businesses.

"They didn't vote for supermarket shortages," he said on Sunday as dozens of pigs gathered around him to be fed. "They didn't understand that was going to be a probable, likely outcome."

Mr Sunak and other Conservative leaders said supply problems are a global issue largely attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic and not limited to Britain. Indeed, businesses around the world are facing rising energy prices, product shortages and labour shortages.

But the challenges in Britain are acute, with many industries facing a shortage of workers, said many business owners. This is in part because of the pandemic, but also because of stricter immigration laws that came into effect after Britain's exit from the EU on Jan 1.

A shopper looking at an empty refrigerated meat display shelf at a supermarket in London on Sept 21, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"We are desperately trying to find workers," said Mr Jon Hare, a spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association, which estimates that Britain is short of about 25,000 butchers and processing plant workers.

He called on the government to issue more short-term visas to foreign workers to help the industry with the transition outside the EU.

"There are only so many people you can take out of the production system before the system starts breaking down," he said.

The spectre of disruptions to the holiday season is particularly resonant in Britain, where Christmas is not Christmas without traditional foods.

And yet British meat producers said the dinner table could be lacking some of the seasonal specialities that people count on every December.

That includes pigs in a blanket (bacon-wrapped sausages that are different from the American version), glazed ham and Yorkshire pudding, which require additional labour to prepare, Mr Hare said.

A lack of truck drivers has also caused sporadic shortages for staples including eggs, milk and baked goods.

One in six people in Britain said that in recent weeks they had not been able to buy certain essential food items because they were unavailable, according to a report by the Office for National Statistics, which surveyed about 3,500 households.

Some consumers interviewed in recent days said they had not had any trouble finding what they wanted at grocery stores.

But Ms Meriem Mahdhi, 22, who moved from Italy to Colchester in south-east England last month to attend college, said she had struggled to find essential items at her local grocery store, Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain.

"All the dried foods like pasta, canned fruit, it's all gone, every day," she said.

Tesco did not respond to a request for comment.

Seeking a quick fix, 200 military staff in fatigues arrived on Monday at refineries to help deliver fuel to petrol stations. About half of them drove civilian vehicles and the others provided logistical support.

British Army and Royal Air Force drivers preparing to deliver fuel in Thurrock, east of London, on Sept 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"As an extra precaution we have put the extra drivers on," Mr Sunak said.

Over the weekend, the government said it had extended thousands of temporary visas for foreign workers to work in Britain until the first few months of next year. But economists said the temporary visas were unlikely to be enough to make much of a difference, since there are shortages at every link in the supply chain.

"There is a lack of workers coming in, and British people are not willing to do the job," said University of Birmingham Professor Robert Elliott. He said it was difficult to say how much of the supply-chain issues were a result of Brexit versus the pandemic, but regardless, the government has chosen policies that have not made the situation better.

The government has underinvested in training workers to drive trucks, he said, and too few young people are pursuing the profession to replace ones who have retired.

Mr Watchorn, the pig farmer, said his farm will be losing money this year. Even culling pigs is costly: If it comes to that, he would have to find someone to slaughter the animals and then take them away.

Financial help from the government to do that would help, but he said he was not counting on it.

"When pigs fly," he quipped.

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