Retailers are likely to import turkeys from France this year if British producers can’t access enough labour for processing. That is the warning from turkey producer Paul Kelly, of Kelly Turkeys, who said French producers are “rubbing their hands with glee” at the prospect of increased trade.
UK businesses have struggled to access labour since immigration rules changed at the start of the year, ending free movement with the UK. There is an average of 16% vacancies across the UK poultry industry, according to the British Poultry Council.
“The sad thing is 30 years ago about 30% of the UK turkey market was supplied by France,” said Kelly. “Since having access to EU workers the UK turkey industry has built up the farms and infrastructure needed to supply just about 100% of the turkey the supermarkets need – and the supermarkets have been very supportive of quality British turkey production.
“Now, the French factories are rubbing their hands with glee as they can see all that business they used to have returning to them.”
He said the turkey sector will be badly hit this Christmas as businesses rely on agencies who bring in labour from the EU and that pool of labour is no longer accessible. “The larger companies have made the prudent decision to reduce Christmas turkey numbers by at least 20% as they simply cannot process the turkeys without the seasonal labour to do it.
“COVID has not helped the labour situation – but it is not the primary reason as many EU workers have left UK,” added Kelly. “They do not feel welcome anymore and unless they have settled status – which only lasts for five years – the paperwork they need to go through to get here is bureaucratic and is costly.
Kelly, whose FarmGate hatchery business supplies many of the 1,000 small seasonal turkey growers throughout the country, is equally concerned about other farmers’ situation. “These are the farmers who traditionally supply local butchers and farmers markets and sell direct from the farmgate. They have a potential nightmare on their hands if the regular people who help them every year with plucking and processing turkeys have not got settled status.”