No turkey shortage, says British Poultry Council

The pledge from the industry body came as the deadline closes to recruit thousands of temporary workers from the European Union to help process turkeys, amid widespread UK labour shortages.

It believes about half of the visas made available have been taken up, but says this will be enough.

“It’ll get us over the line,” said the head of the BPC, Richard Griffiths.

Although he predicted there would be “a bird for everyone who wants one”, people would have less choice overall this year, he said.

“We’ve been able to streamline products and reduce the variety, so that helps with the overall volume. There will be a focus on whole birds and very simple crowns and roasts,” he added.

After months of pressure, the government relaxed immigration rules in September, making 5,500 visas available for foreign workers as a temporary measure to help the poultry industry get through Christmas.

The BPC reckons 2,500 to 3,000 applications have been made, although the Home Office and Defra would not comment, and those workers are now starting to arrive.

These numbers are way below the 5,500 visas up for grabs – the number that the industry had estimated were needed at the start of the year.

But Mr Griffiths says that thanks to a cut in the number of birds being reared, as well as producers managing to recruit some local EU seasonal workers who have settled status in the UK, the industry can now cope.

For Paul Kelly, the owner of KellyBronze, a turkey producer in Essex, the government’s temporary visa scheme has made all the difference. He now has the workers he needs.

“Christmas has been saved. I just wish they’d done it earlier,” he says.

This relatively small family business is now in its 50th year and prides itself on raising free range, hand plucked birds.

“It’s impossible to do this job without seasonal workers. People say to me, you should employ local people,” Mr Kelly said.

“Well, I have four weeks’ work at Christmas. So how can I expect people to give up a full-time job to come for a month?

“We’re a seasonal agriculture business, just like raspberries and strawberries, and we need people to help with our harvest.”

He managed to hire 63 mainly EU seasonal workers and needed another 22 through the government’s emergency scheme.

“These 22 workers make up about 20% of my full team. It was touch and go and a lot of sleepless nights, up until the last week in September when we got the green light from the Government to get some visas”.

Many shoppers have also been anxious. Consumers spent £6m more on frozen turkeys last month than a year earlier, according to data from Kantar.

Households, it seems, have been racing to buy turkeys to stuff in the freezer, amid fears of festive shortages closer to Christmas.

“I don’t think there will be people fighting over turkeys in the supermarket. The industry has pulled out all the stops and we will be supplying the Christmas market this year,” said Mr Kelly.

But he also agreed there would be less variety on offer.

“The visa scheme has helped, but it came too late for a lot of the Christmas catalogues which get done in May and June.

“All those lattice joints, stuffed joints, and all those fancy turkey joints – they’ve been shrunk right down. The range will be reduced, but the numbers will be there. “

His workers will be arriving over the next few days ready to start in earnest by the weekend, when the business will go at breakneck speed to fulfil some 26,000 orders.

But Paul is already starting to think about next Christmas. He believes that without a permanent seasonal workers’ scheme, the industry will shrink by another 15-20% next year.

“Without it, it’s game over for the turkey industry,” he said.

“If we can’t supply the supermarkets, they might have to import turkeys from big producers in Poland and Germany, which is crazy.”