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The UK’s food and drink industry is in crisis mode as shortages of workers spanning across industries – from HGV drivers to fruit and vegetable pickers to hospitality and retail staff – result in empty shelves at supermarkets across the nation.
Industry leaders have warned that the shortages, which are being caused by a combination of Brexit and Covid, will continue to impact retailers up to the busy Christmas season, and Food & Drink Federation CEO Ian Wright has warned that the era of ‘just-in-time’ delivery models could be coming to an end. Amid these dire circumstances, how have independent fine food retailers fared?
“My research suggests that many independents such as farm shops are well stocked,” Edward Berry of The Flying Fork consultancy told Speciality Food. While this doesn’t speak to every single retailer’s experience, it certainly shows the clear benefits of the speciality sector’s shorter supply chains.
As with the panic buying shortages at the start of the pandemic, independents have proved more resilient thanks to their localised supply chains. “Local sourcing is their greatest strength,” Edward added. “There is clearly a jobs crisis among hauliers and food processing factories that has had an effect on some shop shelves and the larger branded restaurant menus, but many of the country’s farms are dealing with surpluses.” However, he added a caveat that for some farms, labour shortages caused by the post-Brexit exodus of migrant workers means that fruit and veg is not being picked at all.
Charlie Hodson, who runs Hodson & Co Cheese Room in Norfolk, noticed a similar trend. He told Speciality Food that one of the only reasons for any shortages in his shop was that small suppliers are in such high demand. “I’ve got two or three cheesemakers who I’m finding it very difficult to get cheese from, purely because they keep running out,” he said. Smaller producers have seen demand for their products skyrocket as consumers seek out local food and drink. “It’s a great thing for them because they’re no longer throwing milk on the fields, which to me is the most important thing. I’d much rather not be able to have the cheese because they can’t keep up with demand,” Charlie said.
It comes as new research from the Local Data Company reveals that the first six months of 2021 saw the independent store market return to growth for the first time since 2017, largely driven by food retailers.
Independent retailers have not been left entirely unscathed from the current supply and worker shortages. As well as some shops and farmers suffering from a shortage of staff, Charlie said some of his small, artisan suppliers are having trouble sourcing packaging. “I’ve had some suppliers say, ‘We can’t supply this because we can’t get the lids or we can’t get the jars.’ So it’s not the food that’s an issue, it’s the packaging.”
However, Charlie concluded that he’s faced no major shortages. “Also, if I can’t get one product, I can buy an equivalent product from somewhere else,” he said, highlighting a level of flexibility that the multiples will find difficult to match. Elsewhere, suppliers of imported products are also facing more barriers with post-Brexit paperwork and shipment delays. “The retailers that I’ve come across who are struggling are those who have more imported products,” Edward said. Yet, in an environment where large supermarket chains are once again experiencing significant product shortages, independent retailers have proven that smaller supply chains are much more reliable when crisis strikes.
Although independents have emerged relatively unscathed by the supply chain chaos, the UK’s wider food and farming sector is still facing “crippling labour shortages across the supply chain,” the NFU says. The group, alongside other major food and drink trade bodies, such as the Food and Drink Federation, is urging the Government to provide support through a Covid Recovery Visa.
The coalition of trade groups wrote a letter to the Prime Minister on 22nd September calling for the introduction of a 12-month Covid Recovery Visa to enable all involved in the supply chain to recruit critical roles in the short term. “The food and farming sector remains on a knife edge due to the unprecedented shortages of workers across the entire supply chain. The industry came together in the summer to evidence these challenges, and the final report showed that there are an estimated 500,000 unfilled vacancies across the industry,” the group wrote.
“The situation is not improving, in fact, images of empty supermarket shelves are becoming commonplace as labour shortages bite. As we move towards Christmas, there is a substantial threat of food inflation directly impacting the poorest families.” They continued, saying it was a “travesty” that shelves were going empty as perfectly edible food was being disposed of on some farms where it couldn’t be picked, packed, processed or transported.
While Brexit will likely continue to cause some delays for small retailers as producers on both sides of the English Channel get up to speed with new rules and regulations, the ‘perfect storm’ affecting UK food supplies is another matter altogether. In addition to Brexit and Covid, rising gas prices are compounding issues for the industry by creating a carbon dioxide shortage, a product which the frozen food and meat industries rely on.
And while the Government has said up to 10,500 lorry drivers and poultry workers will be able to receive temporary, three-month UK visas to ease supply chain disruption in the run-up to Christmas, experts say that number is not enough.
As the industry grapples with meeting consumers’ needs in the run-up to the busiest time of year, it is independents once again who have proven their ability and willingness to step up and provide a fantastic service when times get tough.