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UK prisoners could plug meat industry labor gaps as crisis accelerates amid COVID-19

August 29, 2021
Food & Drink

British meat producers are scrambling to plug labor gaps that have deepened in the wake of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Suppliers are now looking to hire prisoners as an approach to bolster industry’s dwindling workforce. FoodIngredientsFirst speaks to the UK’s leading meat processing associations for a firsthand account of the compounded impacts of the ongoing crisis.

“Much of the food industry is facing a recruitment crisis,” says Tony Goodger, Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) spokesperson. “We have spoken with one open prison that was unable to help us as they were not allowing any more inmates out on Release on Temporary License (ROTL).”

“We have spoken with the Ministry of Justice to explore options for how our members might be able to employ current inmates and ex-offenders,” he details. “It is of note that one leading food manufacturer has already linked up with a prison to train inmates for post-release positions.”

“In the meantime, a few of our members have informed us that they already have inmates on ROTL working for them and find them all to be well behaved, hard-working and willing to learn. In some cases, they wish to continue working in the food processing industry post release.”

It is of note that many prisons already teach inmates food safety, which is the entry point level required for working in the food industry.

“We have suggested that they look at some of the other free training available such as the FSA’s Allergen training and Vacuum Packing training in order that offenders can leave prisons ‘job ready’,” says Goodger.

Gaps are appearing across food sector
Meat processors are presented with the challenge that different cuts require specific skill sets from different types of butchers. Amid labor scarcity, the range of food choices readily available for British consumers is reduced.

“The way that the companies are dealing with staff shortages is that they actually reduce the variety of meat cuts that they produce,” Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“What they tend to do if the staff shortages are quite acute is that they will start favoring singular cuts because more of their staff are able to manage that type of work,” he flags.

“If you’ve been around supermarkets on a regular basis over the course of the last six months, you will notice, depending on the supermarket that you’re in, that there are gaps now starting to appear on the shelves.”

“You’ll notice that not just in the meat section, but across most sections that have fruit and veggie ready meals,” he notes. “Gaps are starting to appear across different types of foods within our sector.”

Fast-food giants face poultry shortages
Last week, Nando’s ran short of its classic menu staple peri-peri chicken wings, which prompted the restaurant chain to shutter 45 of its 450 UK locations in the UK.

The chain underscored staffing shortages among its suppliers who are “struggling to keep up with demand” as well as the lack of heavy goods vehicle drivers that resulted in gaps across supermarket shelves over the course of this month.

KFC also faced significant supply cuts without specifically naming any of the affected foods or packaging. “You might find some items aren’t available or our packaging might look a little different to normal,” the fast food giant said in a statement.

“Things may be a little different when you next visit us,” it added.

“Situations like what happened to Nando’s and KFC are the kind of activities that get media attention,” remarks Allen at BMPA. “The problem is just as acute elsewhere across the meat processing sector.”

“I think what that’s done is that it actually has helped highlight the problems that are actually in other sectors, not just the poultry sector. It all comes down to the same thing – a shortage of labor.”

Last month, in an effort to plug the labor drain caused by the “pingdemic,” the UK government introduced a new daily testing scheme that allows many food workers to continue working, regardless of vaccination status.

Access to migrant labor inhibited
Britain’s restricted access to EU migrant workers has been among industry’s most widely felt repercussions in the wake of Brexit coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the start of the pandemic, a lot of our workers who were from the EU have now returned home to their home countries,” details Allen. “We’ve had people leaving the industry and not being replaced so you know an underlying and longer term staff shortage and skills shortage.”

The future of industry’s recovery still hinges on government decisions made over the next couple of years, in terms of how they want to deal with allowing migrant workers into the country.

“As an industry we’ve been pushing hard for the government to reconsider their position on the Skilled Worker Shortage Occupation List, particularly skilled jobs which take a long time to train, such as a highly skilled butcher,” says Allen.

“You can’t replace these people overnight.”

By Benjamin Ferrer


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