By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council
What strange times we all live in, with the lockdown continuing in an effort to restrict the number of new cases of COVID-19 and, of course, to limit the number of deaths. Who cannot have been moved by the heart-breaking media images of people lying in hospital beds on ventilators and the interviews with family members who have lost loved ones? We must also not forget the front-line NHS and care home staff who put their lives on the line each day.
Now that panic buying by some consumers seems to have ebbed away, a huge acknowledgement needs to go to those in the food supply chain, including farmers (the ultimate food producers), for keeping the population fed. The work on farms has to continue during times of crisis, albeit under social distancing requirements – a huge thank you.
The supply of PPE has been well documented in terms of shortages for front line NHS and care workers. It may seem of less importance, but supplies of PPE is in short supply elsewhere, including in the egg industry. The legislative requirement, under Regulation 7(1) of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH), to provide PPE for staff remains in place. BEIC has a small working group looking into this in terms of the supply of masks and we have estimated that 25k – 30k FFP2 / FFP3 masks are required each week across the integrated egg industry, which includes re-use where possible. BEIC is also part of a cross-sector working group looking to understand and help solve the situation.
Last month, the BEIC responded to the Government’s consultation on the proposed UK Global Tariff, expected to come into effect after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. We made our concerns clear, that if the import tariff was to be removed on the 8-egg tariff lines, this would effectively allow for imports from non-EU countries and send the signal that the UK is prepared to operate double standards – one standard where domestic egg producers are required to continue to employ high standards, and an opposite standard where the go-ahead is given to non-EU countries to export eggs and egg products produced to much lower, or non-existent, regulatory standards on animal welfare, environmental protection, and (in some cases) food safety.
BEIC, RSCPA and Compassion in World Farming recently wrote a joint letter to Liz Truss MP, the Secretary of State for International Trade, George Eustice MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and for the attention of the Prime Minister, expressing our concerns over the UK Global Tariff policy. In the letter we urged the UK Government not to let non-EU countries undermine the UK’s reputation for high standards of animal welfare, and undercut our farmers by allowing countries with low-or-no hen welfare legislation, tariff free access to the UK market. We emphasised our message that until national legislation and trade agreements are in place to protect these standards, maintaining the current tariffs on eggs and egg products are the only way to prevent countries with systems of production that are illegal in the UK from undermining this country’s greatest agricultural success story – the British egg industry. Naturally, during this difficult time for the country, the UK Government’s attention will be focused on resolving the COVID-19 crisis, and rightfully so. We cannot afford to allow this issue to go unnoticed and potentially end up in a situation where tariffs on eggs and egg products are removed quietly.
The BEIC has also submitted evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for its inquiry into labour in the food supply chain. In February, the Government published a policy statement on a new points-based immigration system to take effect from 1st January 2021, stating that the Government would “not implement a route for lower-skilled workers”, because “we need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation”.
We explained the potential impact a points-based system will have on the British egg industry, particularly if the industry finds it more difficult to recruit from abroad, particularly from EU countries. Over 10,000 people are directly employed in egg production and packaging, and a further 13,000 are indirectly employed by many of the ancillary businesses that are economically dependent on our industry, 30% of employees involved in egg production on farms are EU migrants, this is around 50% for those employed in egg packing centres – but it can be as high as 60% in certain areas.
It is also important for policymakers to understand that the Government’s proposed Seasonal Workers pilot scheme will be of little benefit to our industry, given the fact our production and operation is all year round. It is vital the British egg industry has access to a constant and reliable supply of labour in order to continue to provide the population with eggs, thus strengthening the food security of the nation.