BMPA updates, as they happen, on developing issues in the meat industry.
Contains links to member only content.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, made a statement in the Commons on 21 July about the UK Government’s views on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the “significant changes” it wants to see adopted. The Government also published a Command Paper the same day setting out its position.
These suggestions have been met with dismay by Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister who pointed out that the agreement has only been implemented with ‘grace periods’ for 6 months. The EU has previously suggested that the EU and UK should negotiate a veterinary agreement to avoid issues that have arisen in relation to “official controls”, but the UK has rejected this suggestion.
The announcement by George Eustice last night that some workers in the food supply chain will be exempt from self-isolating if they’re ‘pinged’ by the NHS App will provide some relief to the industry. However, we’re still missing key details and clear guidance on exactly how this will apply to individual companies and workers.
You can read our thoughts on this in this morning’s press release which highlights what we know, what we don’t know and what needs to happen next.
We have been notified this week that there is a shortage of veterinarians at the port of Rotterdam which means that the Border Control Post (BCP) can no longer guarantee ‘day 1 for day 2’ turnaround. The best they can offer is ‘day 1 for day 3’ which is not acceptable for fresh meat shipments. BMPA has alerted Defra and APHA and asked them to step in to resolve the situation as soon as possible. In the mean time, companies might want to explore alternative BCPs.
The labour situation in the meat industry and other sectors has been in the spotlight this week with the media focusing on the threat of empty supermarket shelves just as peak Summer demand hits. But Covid-19 has merely exacerbated an already critical shortage of labour in the industry which poses a more structural and longer term threat to British meat companies.
The latest feedback we’re getting from the front line is that skills and worker shortages for permanent positions are reaching worryingly high levels. We’ve heard reports of plants having between 10% and 16% vacancies even before absenteeism due to Covid is factored-in. Nick Allen returned to Radio 4’s Today Programme to update listeners on the current situation. He said that “there’s an air of despondency creeping through the industry” as companies begin to fail to keep the food supply chain running.
Listen to Nick’s interview (at 1:52:23)
Defra has announced that the Movement Assistance Scheme has been extended and expanded to cover more costs and offer greater support for traders moving agri-food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Traders will now benefit from increased Government support until the end of 2023.
Following the publication of new Government guidance on working safely in factories during Covid-19, FSA has written to all food business operators to help them plan their next steps as the country unlocks. They feel that there is a persuasive argument to continue to apply existing Covid-19 controls such as social distancing and route controls, and place particular emphasis on workplace ventilation. They also say that should any businesses choose to move away from control measures which could, in turn, affect FSA’s Field Operations teams, they will be requesting access to that company’s risk assessment.
The Home Office has said that it will accept late applications for settled status made after the 30 June deadline as long as the applicant has a “reasonable grounds” for applying late. They will be given a written notice and will need to apply within 28 days of that notice. We’ve also heard that people are struggling with some of the settled status checks. You can find out what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’ and how to apply on the Gov.UK website.
The public health debate has become more prominent over the last few years, and the role diet plays is becoming better understood. This week has seen a crop of influential new reports published that tackle this complex issue including Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy. Looking beyond the headline recommendations, his comments on ultra-processed food grabbed our attention as well as that of the British Medical Journal.
The key point is that, in our quest for healthy citizens and a healthy planet, we shouldn’t allow ultra-processed food with poor nutritive composition to displace healthy fresh whole food from our diet. The BMJ explores why simply re-formulating such foods won’t be the answer either. Ultimately we will need to drastically reduce those foods in our diet and return to simple fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.
In parliamentary questions, MP Suzanne Webb seemed to agree: “Ultra-processed food is basically high in fat, high in salt and high in sugar, and it is highly addictive. I believe that it plays a significant part in the growing crisis that is obesity. I genuinely believe that it is not food in itself, when one considers all the flavourings and artificial colourings that have to go into it to make it taste like food in the first instance.”
Nick Allen told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that we’re hearing reports from some members that between five and ten percent of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the app and asked to self-isolate. This is on top of the desperate shortage of workers that the industry is already suffering. As a result, companies are having to simplify down their range of products to compensate for key skills being removed from their production lines.
Nick explained that, if the UK workforce situation deteriorates further, companies will be forced to start shutting down production lines all together. It’s for this reason that we’ve been calling on the Government for months to add butchers to the Shortage Occupation List, which would allow the industry to temporarily fill these growing vacancies with overseas workers until the current crisis has passed.
Listen to Nick Allen’s interview (at 2:10)
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal this week, Peter Hardwick reflects on the effects of Brexit six months on. He discusses how administrative costs have doubled, contributing to an 80% reduction in beef exports and 33% reduction in sheepmeat exports to the EU. He also highlights the new trade deals that the UK Government is currently negotiating as being a particular cause for concern and how they will add to the pressure on UK producers.
The existing £1000 that Government pay to firms hiring a new apprentice for more than one year has been given a temporary boost.. Until 30 September, new apprentices of any age who start work after 1 April will attract an additional £3000 employer incentive payment. That’s a total of £4000 per hire. And, unlike the apprenticeship levy funding, this new £3000 payment can be spent on anything to support an employers costs including salary, travel or uniforms.
You’ll also be able to advertise on the official Government website, “Find an apprentice” to capture school and college leavers as they look for their first career move.
38 new Export Health Certificates have now been made available so exporters can review the changes, with more being released on 29 July 2021. We’ve produced a document setting out the most significant changes to the new EHCs and are also consulting with members and Government on the knock-on modifications that will need to be made to current Support Health Attestations. We’ll be advocating for minimal changes to SHAs to reduce complication.
It’s also worth noting that extending the Northern Ireland Protocol grace period to 1 October also coincides with the requirement for EHCs for everything going into NI. Even with the extra three months, a workable, mitigating solution is still looking unlikely at this stage. Separately, Defra are holding live webinars in July and August where you can ask questions to an expert panel about the new EHCs.
The Food Supply Chain Forum had two guest speakers from BVA and AmiVet to discuss the current veterinary situation, flagging the challenges facing the veterinary industry, not least the huge meat industry reliance on EU vets who make up 95% of Official Veterinarians working in the UK.
Since leaving the EU, the FSA and FSS have taken on responsibility for assessing food and animal feed safety in the UK. From now onward they will be publishing information about what they’re working on so that stakeholders can track the issues being reviewed and what stage they’re up to.
Information on the register includes issues ranging from general food and meat hygiene to contaminants, additives and food contact materials. There’s also a separate register of regulated product applications undergoing risk analysis.
Defra Minister Victoria Prentis spoke at length this week about current and future requirements for food labelling. She said that Government will be calling for evidence this Summer to “address evidence gaps on the impact, costs and deliverability on different types of labelling reforms.” This, alongside part two of the Dimbleby review of the food system, will inform a full consultation later in the year involving stakeholder and public input.
The European Commission has just launched a new code of conduct as part of the EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy to increase the availability and affordability of healthy and sustainable food options. 65 food sector companies and associations have already signed up to the voluntary code. Their press release says: “The objective is to improve the impact of food processing, retail and food services’ operations on sustainability and to improve the sustainability of the food value chains, in relation to primary producers and other actors in the chain”. Organisations will be reporting progress annually.
The Government response to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee recommendations on public sector food procurement is very encouraging. In particular its commitment to “enhance the emphasis on local procurement and the focus on UK strengths such as high environmental production and welfare standards” is to be applauded.
In addition to placing more emphasis on seasonal and nutritious produce, the response states that: “We have a manifesto commitment to encourage the public sector to ‘Buy British’ – to support our farmers and reduce environmental costs. Our vision is that local sourcing will be championed”. There’s plenty more to like in the Government’s response, not least that they intend to consult with stakeholders and adjust their thinking as new evidence emerges.
The FSA has produced a risk assessment regarding disruptions to the carbon dioxide gas supply in England. The supply squeeze is following a similar pattern to 2018 which threatened to cause animal welfare issues amongst sites that use the gas for slaughter.
They have produced two documents in support of companies in the supply chain. One is a letter from FSA Chief Executive Emily Miles setting out the impacts and risks which can be used in commercial discussions with Co2 suppliers. The other is a risk assessment regarding the use of lower purity Co2 and considerations around its use.
In this interview with Rod Addy, Dunbia’s Isla Roebuck looks back at some of the challenges the industry has faced during his time as BMPA President. He reflects on how the Association has been re-shaped and grown under the direction of Nick Allen and how it has responded to the most pressing issues thrown up by Brexit, including the on-going labour crisis.
In a speech this week, CBI President Lord Bilimoria described the ‘perfect storm’ of labour shortages that UK industries are facing. The crux of his message was that “policymakers need to respond now. By autumn it will be too late”.
He called for Government to urgently update the Shortage Occupation List as recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee last year, saying that what’s needed is “a commitment to review the list annually to keep it responsive to the ebb and flow of skill demands across the whole of the UK’s economy”. He went on to say: “where there are clear, evidenced labour shortages – businesses should be able to hire from overseas. Including jobs that aren’t highly skilled, but have good salaries”. He added that Government should be “doing more to support British workers and directing them to qualifications we know are in short supply”.
The Ulster Unionist Party’s Agriculture Spokesperson, Rosemary Barton, has called for clarity from the UK Government as a matter of urgency following reports that the European Commission is poised to lift its ban on feeding animal remains to farm livestock.
Ms Barton posed some key questions: “Does the UK intend to maintain the ban? Can the Government guarantee that this new EU policy will not be extended to Northern Ireland as part of the Protocol? Can the Government give assurances that this will have no impact on the importation of Northern Ireland produce to vital GB markets?”
The House of Commons Library has published a Research Briefing Paper on the UK/Australia Trade deal. It includes what’s covered by the FTA, how agriculture will be affected and how Parliament will scrutinise the agreement. It’s also got reactions from stakeholders.
In a new report published this week, Rabobank analysts demonstrate how the beef supply chain could cut it’s emissions by over 30% by 2030. They point to a combination of innovation in technology, feed and pasture management coupled with a transfer of knowledge from developed to developing food systems around the globe. Interestingly the report also contends that market forces rather than government regulation will be the thing that drives this change most efficiently.
In a speech to the Groundswell conference on regenerative agriculture, George Eustice has explained why Defra has rejected the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation that the Government should push for a 20 percent reduction in meat consumption. He also quashed the idea of a meat tax following an article in The Sun newspaper that a leaked copy of the upcoming National Food Strategy report will be recommending one even though it might spark street protests.
Mr Eustice said: “The Climate Change Committee say we should be eating higher-value meat, meat that costs more money, and probably a little bit less of it, but it should be produced to the very highest standards in a pasture-based system. I agree with that overall but I don’t agree about getting there by lecturing people about what they should eat.”
The apprenticeship service is adding new features to make it easier for employers to manage the whole process. They’ve introduced a new service to match specific training requirements with course providers alongside their current information on incentive payments and how to recruit apprentices who have been furloughed or made redundant. The recently published “Road to quality apprenticeship” has all the details.
Politicians are breathing a sigh of relief today following the EU’s agreement to extend the grace period for sending chilled meat preparations from GB to Northern Ireland. However, we know that it is no more than a stay of execution, and doesn’t fundamentally solve the much bigger issue of the comprehensive Sanitary and Phytosanitary certification that will be needed from 1 October when easements for the retail supply chains will end.
Peter Hardwick, BMPA’s Trade Policy Advisor gave an insightful interview on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday to explain what the real issue is and why Government should be calling on industry experts to help devise a workable solution.
Listen to Peter’s interview (From 17:16 minutes)
The Butchers’ Company is planning to sponsor a Nuffield Scholar once again in 2022, and we’re looking for people working in the UK meat sector to apply for sponsorship by 31 July 2021. The scheme provides the opportunity for suitable applicants between the ages of 25 and 45 to further their personal development by exploring a topic of their choice through study and travel. It’s a unique opportunity to travel the world and learn from global experts, tapping into new ways of thinking and challenging conventional beliefs.
Described by 2 Sisters Food Group CEO Ronald Kers as ‘bonkers’, the Government policy of paying up to £3k to re-patriate EU workers who haven’t applied for settled status by the 30 June deadline is going to exacerbate the labour crisis that the food industry is currently grappling with.
But, despite the acute problem we’re facing, Government is consistently refusing to address the issue. British Meat Processors Association CEO Nick Allen confirmed there is “industry consensus that there is a serious problem and frustration about how to get the government to listen and take action”.
The stock answer we can get out of Defra is that they’re working closely with the Home Office to ensure a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce beyond 2021. The problem is that we need workers right now in June 2021.
A bill, currently before the Northern Ireland Assembly, proposes an overall GHG emissions target, but does not set sectoral targets for things like agriculture and industry. The Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association wants to proceed with caution to ensure that full carbon accounting of both emissions and sequestration is taken into account.
Such caution is well advised. Just as medical science is making huge and accelerated progress, agriscience is also on the brink of breakthroughs that will massively reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of livestock through genetics, breeding and new feed technologies. As an example Dean Holroyd of ABP said that on two demonstration farms it has already been possible to cut methane emissions from livestock by 40% against the national average. With improvements like this, we think the Government will have difficulty justifying policies that seek to cut carbon efficient meat production locally while importing red meat from countries with lower climate ambitions to replace it.
The brewing ‘sausage war’ looks set to be averted as the EU is expected to formally agree to an extension on the chilled meats grace period under the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, Micheal Martin has again urged the UK to reciprocate by helping to secure a broader food safety and animal health agreement. He also reiterated that, according to the Biden administration, “the US are very clearly saying an SPS agreement would not impact on that [free trade agreement].”
Separately, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney has warned that the kind of ‘radical changes’ that Downing Street say are needed to the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland will be a ‘problem’ and mean that the UK is ‘not committed to the protocol’. We now have until 30 September to devise a workable solution.
The Government has said that they will not be taking further action during the Covid-19 outbreak to update school food standards in line with recommendations from the Climate Change Committee to reduce beef, lamb and dairy.
Vicky Ford MP said that, considering the robustness of the existing standards and the extra pressure on schools such a change in guidance would present, nothing will change, however Government will keep this position under review.
Pay rates in the meat industry have risen close to 10% this year, but we still have five times more vacancies. And this picture is being repeated across the food supply chain with staff shortages reaching the critical level where food supply will be disrupted and prices will have to rise. These stark warnings are the subject of a joint letter from food and transport industry associations to the Prime Minister asking him to step in and make some emergency changes to the immigration system to allow overseas workers to take up these jobs where UK workers are either unwilling or unavailable to fill the vacancies.
In an ITV interview, Nick Allen articulated just how acute the problem has become: “I have never have had chief executives of massively large companies phone me up and say ‘Nick, we have to do something. We have to get the message through to government, to people, that we are weeks away from a crisis.’ I have never had that happen. It’s extraordinary.”
The labour shortage in the meat industry (and beyond) is turning into a big problem. The people and skills we need are just not available in sufficient numbers in the UK which means we’re imminently looking at having to close UK production lines and buy from overseas suppliers. Certainly not the kind of boost to British business that Government has been promising.
We’ve been speaking out in the media about how the problem has arisen and why there is no quick fix. The bottom line is that, if the Government doesn’t help by adjusting immigration rules, we’re heading for a brick wall in the run up to the busy Christmas period.
Not the most high profile piece of news to emerge this week, but this transcript of uncorrected oral evidence that was given to the House of Lords European Affairs committee on 9 June has some interesting comments on the costs and benefits so far of operating the Northern Ireland Protocol. Of particular interest to our sector are Senior Economist at Ulster University, Dr Esmond Birnie’s comments. We searched on ‘food’ to get straight to the relevant bits.
We’ve uploaded a report produced by the University of Cambridge for the Food Standards Agency around the rapid technological innovation that is reshaping the UK food system.
Six technology fields were identified and their implications for industry, consumers, food safety and the regulatory framework explored. They ranged from food production and processing including indoor farming and 3D food printing to novel sources of protein like insects and lab-grown meat. The report also looked into genomics for food safety applications as well as innovative packaging solutions and digital technology to support analysis, decision making and traceability in the food sector.