Recent research commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) and conducted by Newcastle University provides an overview of the ways in which labor shortages in critical food system roles are affecting food safety and availability, as well as FSA’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.
Specifically, the study examined the risks related to FSA posed by labor shortages of butchers; heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers; food packers and pickers; meat hygiene inspectors (MHIs); official veterinarians; and retail, foodservice, and warehouse employees. “Labor shortages” as defined by the report are instances where the numbers of workers with a given skillset required to run the operations in an industry, sector, or specific node of a supply chain exceeds the number of skilled people available to work or willing to take up employment at the current level of remuneration for the skillset. The report takes a systems approach to its analysis, recognizing the breadth of issues impacting labor shortages and the interconnectedness of food system sectors.
According to the report, systemic shocks such as Britain’s exit from the EU and the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the labor market, and the UK has yet to recover. Since the last quarter of 2021, the number of workers aged 55 and over going into voluntary redundancy and early retirement has doubled compared with previous years, including a significant proportion of workers in the agrifood sector, including HGV drivers, MHIs, official veterinarians, and butchers. The number of vacancies in the food sector increased sharply since the economy reopened in late 2020 following the lifting of lockdowns, although current unemployment levels have remained lower than five years prior to the pandemic. Surveys show that vacancies are difficult to fill in the food system and, despite migrant policy interventions, labor shortages across the industry persisted into the first quarter of 2022. In 2022, the vacancy rate in food and beverage roles per 100 employees increased to 6.3 percent in the second quarter, up from 5.2 percent in Quarter 1.
The risks posed to food safety and supply and FSA’s operational efficiency are varied. In general, a shortage of food packers and pickers could cause worsening product availability, assortment, and price inflation, especially for eggs, bread, and produce. Potential food fraud, long-term food insecurity, and product recall and withdrawal from the market are also risks that may arise. A lack of domestic production due to these shortages may also increase issues of provenance and traceability associated with harmonizing national regulatory standards with new regional trade and bilateral food safety requirements for imports from new locations. A dearth of retail, foodservice, and warehouse workers may also lead to food availability problems and long-term food insecurity.
In the meat and dairy sector, a lack of butchers is leading to food chain information verification complications at pre-mortem inspections; increased microbiological, physical, chemical, allergenic, and cross-contamination food safety hazards; traceability difficulties; potential food fraud and unlawful processing; and the diversion of food meant for disposal into the market. Shortages of official veterinarians are also leading to a potential increase in the risk of food documentation fraud, animal welfare breaches, less public health assurance among consumers; and impeded knowledge transfer of subjective scoring criteria for risk-based inspections from the retiring workforce.
An insufficient number of MHIs may also lead to increased biosecurity risks, posing a threat to public health, food safety, and animal health and welfare.
Additionally, a lack of HGV drivers may lead to a risk of microbial growth arising from delayed transport of meat that has not been chilled, or has only been partially chilled. Food withdrawal from the market and recalls may occur due to resulting safety and quality hazards.
Moreover, domestic meat and dairy production is declining due to shortages, and while this is not a safety risk in itself, this would lead to an increased reliance on imports and therefore a greater diversion of FSA resources to border and inspection checks. Additionally, most imported meat is processed and packed in retail form after it enters the UK. Brexit-related import changes are creating some challenges and delays at border control points, and such delays could make it increasingly difficult to maintain shelf-life at the level required by retailers. Non-EU countries importing to the UK may also be subject to less stringent standards.
Regarding produce food safety, labor shortages have meant that the available workers have worked longer hours, with inexperienced workers inspecting fresh produce. Furthermore, the shortage of HGV drivers in 2021 had a significant impact on both food availability and food safety as fresh produce needed to be moved quickly and was being deposited for longer on farms that lacked appropriate storage facilities. However, in the medium to long term, digitizing food inspection and introducing more technology to inspect fruit and vegetables could significantly reduce the risks associated with food safety.