Consumers will not be protected from price increases forever, UK’s wholesale food industry has warned.
It comes as worker shortages caused by Brexit have been persisting across fruit and vegetable picking, meat processing and HGV driving.
Tomatoes are among products which have doubled in price over the past year – a kilogram of tomatoes wholesale costs £1.47 compared to 75p in 2020, The Guardian has reported. Meanwhile, vegetable oil prices are at their highest in more than 30 years.
“We are trying our utmost to absorb as much of the increases as possible but we, as well as the rest of the supply chain, can’t absorb those price increases forever,” Darren Labbett, managing director at restaurant supplier Woods Foodservice, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘Wage increases will be passed on’
James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, told The Guardian that there are 500,000 vacancies across the supply chain, which means Brits should expect food prices to increase.
“The labour shortage means you are having to pay drivers specifically more, and that will be passed on,” he said.
And he suggested it is not as simple as just training British people to fill the vacancies. “The skills gap needs to be filled, you can’t just pay people to be a meat processor, it is a skilled job and you need qualifications,” he told the paper.
But transport minister Grant Shapps rejected calls to change post-Brexit immigration rules, to allow for EU lorry drivers to help with food shortages.
After admitting the road freight sector faces “historic shortages” he said:
“I do not support using foreign labour to tackle a long-standing issue in the haulage industry.”
Shapps insisting leaving the European Union has provided the UK with the “opportunity to introduce a new immigration system while building a more resilient domestic workforce”.
In response, Labour’s Andrew Adonis said the transport secretary “would rather have HGV driver shortages, and thus food shortages in the shops, than allow more EU truck drivers.”
“Incredible Brexit blinkers,” he added.
Last month, a lorry driver explained to The London Economic why he is thinking of following in the footsteps of his colleagues and moving back to Romania to work across Europe.
Viorel Alexandru Onu thinks his previous work conditions were better than the ones he has in the UK.
And he said being a lorry driver requires sacrifices and is not “necessarily a pleasure to do”.
In July, an Italian woman working for a big British supermarket said for most of the week there were no deliveries and she had not seen anything like this in 12 years.
She told The London Economic: “The truth is, I don’t know what is going on, we are getting a delivery and then we are not getting any deliveries for three-four days. The staff is staying home. I am so upset.
“The deliveries shortage is because of Brexit. I have been here 12 years and I have never seen this happening. Deliveries came before Brexit. During the pandemic, it was never this bad before.”
She added: “It’s not because of the pandemic because it has always worked last year.
“I have worked throughout the pandemic, I have never stopped when people started panic buying, we had some problems but because people bought everything, not because we didn’t have anything to sell like now.”