How Brexit and the food supply chain crisis might take a bite out of your Christmas dinner
With the pandemic worsening supply chain problems and UK worker shortages caused by Brexit, there’s a chance we may need to adapt our Christmas dinners this year.
by: Henry Mance
8 Dec 2021
Illustration by Carmen Johnson
Christmas dinner is the perfect time to forget about the stresses of everyday life, such as arguments about Brexit. Or is it? Because over recent years, food has become more political. What’s on our plates has become tied up with rows over immigration, lorry driver facilities, import checks and trade deals.
Look closely at your Christmas dinner. Nearly a year after the Brexit transition period ended, you can see how what’s decided at Westminster has filtered through to our shops.
Let’s start with the turkey. Since at least the late 19th century, turkey has been the centrepiece of a typical Christmas meal in Britain (despite the fact it doesn’t taste like much – more on that later). But Brexit led to an exodus of EU workers, who had made up most of the workers in British slaughterhouses.
Meat processors were unable to find local workers to fill the vacancies. Despite the government offering some temporary visas, many British farmers found themselves having to limit production, or even cull birds. To cover the gap, millions of turkeys are now being imported from Poland and France for Christmas. Sales of frozen turkeys have also boomed, as shoppers try to avoid disappointment.
The UK’s poultry producers have warned that shoppers will have less choice this year. You should still be able to find whole turkeys. But products that require skilled labour – such as small joints, or turkey crowns – may not be so easily available. Expect to find fewer new ranges, too.
The situation with pork has been even worse than with poultry. British farmers have culled at least 16,000 healthy pigs, because food suppliers don’t have the staff to process the animals that they have contracted to buy. Tens of thousands more pigs are backed up on farms around the country. For farmers, this is not just wasteful: it’s an insult to the work that they put in throughout the year.
“This is more than just Christmas. This is the whole industry, our livelihoods,” says Kate Morgan, a farmer in East Yorkshire with 1,700 pigs. Some pig producers have simply quit. German pork is likely to fill some of the shortfall. Even if you buy British pork, the meat may have travelled to the Netherlands and back for processing.
What does all this mean for pigs in blankets, the stars of many Christmas dinners? Some are made months beforehand, but producers say the whole process became delayed. Although pigs in blankets are unlikely to go missing completely, more labour-intensive cuts – such as gammon and rib joints – may be pushed aside.
“I’ve seen empty shelves where there should have been pork,” says Liz Webster, chair of the Save British Farming campaign.
During the summer, vegetable growers saw large chunks of their crops go to waste due to a lack of farm workers and lorry drivers. One co-operative, East of Scotland Growers, said it had scrapped 3.5 million broccolis and 1.9 million cauliflowers over the summer.
A Lincolnshire grower, TH Clements, was so short of staff that it was offering broccoli pickers up to £30 an hour (equivalent to £62,000 a year, if you ignore the fact that you can’t pick broccoli all year round).
Ahead of Christmas, attention turns to brussels sprouts, the vegetable that everyone loves to hate. “My gut feeling is that it’ll be OK for Christmas,” says Richard Mowbray, commercial director of TH Clements. Because sprouts are essential to Christmas, supermarkets and haulage companies are likely to give them priority over other products if it comes to the crunch.
One factor in growers’ favour has been relatively benign weather in Britain: we haven’t had the extensive flooding seen in previous years. Even so, there isn’t much flexibility for producers of potatoes, carrots, parsnips and the like suddenly to increase production, if supermarkets decide they want to do big Christmas promotions.
“If everyone leaves everything till the last minute, and starts demanding twice the volume, that will be very, very tricky,” says Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association.
Brussels sprouts aside, Britain is reliant on vegetables from abroad, particularly Spain. But foreign lorry drivers are wary of a repeat of last year, when thousands of them were stuck in a car park in Kent over Christmas after France closed its borders. Mowbray says Spanish lorry drivers have been asking for an extra €500 per load to make the trip this year.
Those costs are currently being absorbed largely by producers and retailers, but could be passed on to shoppers. Fruits like satsumas also come from abroad – we grow only one-sixth of the fruit that we eat – and are vulnerable to increasing transport costs.
But whatever happens this Christmas, there will be booze, right? Well, sort of. The Wine and Spirit Trade Association has warned of “delivery chaos”, saying that delivery orders are taking five times as long as they were last year. That means your local shop may not have the exact alcohol that you were looking for.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, says: “The outcome of what is and isn’t available at Christmas will be highly unpredictable… In communities that are located further away from distribution hubs, where a single lorry doesn’t show up at the local supermarket, that could mean hundreds of products aren’t available when people go in to do their Christmas shop.”
For farmers and producers, the hope is that these strains could have a silver lining – nudging people to change how they think about food. “The consumer doesn’t realise how fragile the supply chain is in food,” says Mowbray. “People over the last 20 years have taken food for granted.”
Food supply remained remarkably resilient in 2020. “We did too good a job at the start of the pandemic,” says Kate Morgan. It was only in 2021, as Brexit hit home, that people started paying attention to the supply chains. A further bump could come in July 2022, when the government brings in checks on imports from the EU (they were due to come in this year, but have been delayed).
That might make some products less available. Already only a quarter of British people – including half of Leave voters – think Brexit has had a positive impact.
Meanwhile, the temporary visas that the UK government has provided this year will soon expire. With no sign of permanent changes to immigration rules, some farmers are thinking about how to adapt to post-Brexit realities by mechanising their production.
Maybe, too, looking harder at our Christmas plates will remind us that our food system could do with a rethink. The rush for cheap meat since the Second World War has taken its toll on the animals: male turkeys are now so big that female turkeys have to be artificially inseminated in order to avoid being injured during sex.
It’s taken its toll on the environment too: 85 per cent of the land used to produce the UK’s food is used for livestock, which require several times more space to produce the same amount of protein as meat-free alternatives. Shifting to plant-based diets, with more vegetables, grains and beans, would free up land for nature and reduce our carbon emissions.
Christmas is when we cling hardest to tradition: we eat turkey, even though, in our heart of hearts, we know that almost any other meat tastes nicer. The National Food Strategy, led by Leon restaurants co-founder Henry Dimbleby, recommended that we eat 30 per cent more fruit and vegetables and 30 per cent less meat by 2032.
Dimbleby has proposed that the UK takes advantage of Brexit by changing how farm subsidies are paid. If more subsidies were tied to how farmers care for the environment, Britain could have an extra 400,000 hectares of broadleaf woodland and an extra 200,000 hectares of grasslands. In response, livestock farmers worry that they are being pushed out of business. That is something else to argue about at Christmas and beyond.
Henry Mance is chief features writer for the Financial Times. @henrymance
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