Britain’s Christmas Lament: Meat Shortages and Delivery Delays

BUNGAY, England — To understand the deep sense of anxiety Britons feel about the supply shortages currently afflicting the nation — and threatening disruptions to the Christmas dinner table — one need only travel to Simon Watchorn’s pig farm, about two hours northeast of London.

In 2014, Mr. Watchorn was England’s pig farmer of the year, with a thriving business. But this year, he said, the outlook for the fall is bleak.

Slaughterhouses are understaffed and are processing a smaller-than-usual number of pigs. There is a shortage of drivers to move pork to grocery stores and butcher shops. And there are fewer butchers to prepare the meat for consumers.

If the problems persist, Mr. Watchorn may have to start culling some of his 7,500 pigs by the end of next month. Pigs grow about 15 pounds each week, and after a certain point, they are too big for slaughterhouses to process.

Mr. Watchorn said the last time he can remember things being this bad was during an outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s. “It’s a muddle,” he said. “It’s worse than a muddle, it’s a disaster, and I don’t know when it’s going to finish.”

Mr. Watchorn, 66, is one of many producers of food and other goods warning of a daunting winter ahead for Britons. Shortages continued to bedevil the British economy on Monday as gas stations in London and in southeastern England reported trouble getting fuel, and the government began deploying military personnel to help ease the lack of drivers. Supermarket consortiums say that pressures from rising transport costs, labor shortages and commodity costs are already pushing prices higher and will likely continue to do so.

The chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, acknowledged on BBC Radio on Monday that there will shortages at Christmastime. He said the government was doing “everything we can” to mitigate the supply chain issues but admitted there was no “magic wand.”

Mr. Watchorn whose farm is near the town of Bungay, England, northeast of London, is convinced that Brexit is responsible for the current distress.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Mr. Watchorn, who prides himself on running a farm where all adult stock live outside, is convinced that Brexit is responsible for the current distress, saying that the exodus of European workers from Britain had led to damaging labor shortages. The British people voted to break with the European Union to reduce immigration, he believes, without realizing how damaging a cliff-edge exit from the bloc would be for businesses.

“They didn’t vote for supermarket shortages,” he said on Sunday as dozens of pigs gathered around him to be fed. “They didn’t understand that was going to be a probable, likely outcome.”

Mr. Sunak and other Conservative leaders say supply problems are a global issue largely attributable to the pandemic and not limited to Britain. Indeed, businesses around the world are facing rising energy prices, product shortages, and labor shortages.

But the challenges in Britain are acute, with many industries facing a shortage of workers — in part because of the pandemic, but also, many business owners say, because of stricter immigration laws which came into effect after Britain’s exit from the European Union on Jan. 1.

“We are desperately trying to find workers,” said Jon Hare, a spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association, which estimates that Britain is short of about 25,000 butchers and processing plant workers. He called on the government to issue more short-term visas to foreign workers to help the industry with the transition outside of the European Union. “There are only so many people you can take out of the production system before the system starts breaking down,” he said.

A shopper confronted sparse food shelves in a Co-op supermarket in Harpenden, England, in September.Credit…Peter Cziborra/Reuters

The specter of disruptions to the holiday season is particularly resonant in Britain, where Christmas isn’t Christmas without traditional foods. And yet British meat producers say the dinner table could be lacking some of the seasonal specialties that people count on every December. That includes pigs in a blanket (bacon-wrapped sausages that are different from the American version), glazed ham and Yorkshire pudding, which require additional labor to prepare, Mr. Hare said.

The National Pig Association has warned that about 120,000 pigs are backed up on farms because of a lack of slaughterhouse workers, and the British Poultry Council said it expected to cut Christmas turkey production by 20 percent. On Monday, protesters gathered outside of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester with signs that said “All we want for Christmas is our pigs in a blanket” and “#saveourbacon.”

Consumers are already anticipating shortages. One farmer in Leeds said that by last month, customers had already ordered all 3,500 turkeys she was raising for Christmas — a first.

A lack of truck drivers has also caused sporadic shortages for staples including eggs, milk, and baked goods. One in six people in Britain said that in recent weeks they had not been able to buy certain essential food items because they were unavailable, according to a report by the Office for National Statistics, which surveyed about 3,500 households.

Some consumers interviewed in recent days said they had not had any trouble finding what they wanted at grocery stores. But Meriem Mahdhi, 22, who moved from Italy to Colchester in southeast England last month to attend college, said she had struggled to find essential items at her local grocery store, Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain. “All the dried foods like pasta, canned fruit, it’s all gone, every day,” she said. Tesco did not respond to a request for comment.

Seeking a quick fix, 200 military personnel in fatigues on Monday arrived at refineries to help deliver fuel to gas stations. About half of them driving civilian vehicles and the others providing logistical support. “As an extra precaution we have put the extra drivers on,” Mr. Sunak said.

Over the weekend, the government said that it had extended thousands of temporary visas for foreign workers to work in Britain until the first few months of next year. But economists said the temporary visas were unlikely to be enough to make much of a difference, since there are shortages at every link in the supply chain.

“There is a lack of workers coming in, and British people are not willing to do the job,” said Robert Elliott, a professor at the University of Birmingham. He said it was difficult to say how much of the supply-chain issues were a result of Brexit versus the pandemic, but regardless, the government has chosen policies that have not made the situation better. The government has underinvested in training workers to drive trucks, he said, and too few young people are pursuing the profession to replace ones who have retired.

Even before Brexit, the meat industry had difficulties attracting workers because of the hard work, low pay and the remote locations of processing plants. Producers have raised wages for butchers by an average of 10 percent this year, the British Meat Processors Association said, but shortages are still so severe that members of the British Poultry Council reported that they had cut weekly chicken production by five to 10 percent.

Mr. Watchorn said the situation is “a disaster, and I don’t know when it’s going to finish.”Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

James MacGregor, the general manager at Riverford, an organic food company based in Devon, England, said he was short of about 40 workers, or about 16 percent of the company. Butchers have been particularly hard to find, he said. To cope with the shortages, Riverford will likely offer fewer products for sale around Christmas.

“It feels like we’re staring down the barrel of a gun a little bit at the moment,” Mr. MacGregor said. “It’s highly likely if we don’t see movement in terms of fuel and labor, we will ultimately end up passing some of this cost on to the consumer.”

Kathy Martyn, the owner of Oakfield Farm in East Sussex, which has about 100 pigs, said that she was relieved to find fuel on Friday, just in time to make it to a catering job for a wedding over the weekend. She said that fuel shortages have made planning difficult, and she may have to cull about 20 of her pigs this year.

“We’ll just roll up our sleeves and take a deep breath,” Ms. Martyn said.

Mr. Watchorn, the pig farmer, said his farm will be losing money this year. Even culling pigs is costly: If it comes to that, he would have to find someone to slaughter the animals and then take them away. Financial help from the government to do that would help, but he says he is not counting on it. “When pigs fly,” he quipped.

Mr. Watchorn said the last time he can remember things being this bad was during an outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Aina J. Khan contributed reporting from Bradford, England, and Stephen Castle from Manchester.

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