Traditional Norfolk Poultry boss denounces worker uncertainty

5:14 PM November 19, 2021

Two months ago, a looming disaster caused by shortages of workers over the holidays kept poultry farmer Mark Gorton from sleeping at night.

Tonight it will be bird flu as the seasonal threat hangs over the UK and strict restrictions are in place across the UK.

This fear will hang over him until the last of his free range herds – scattered outside across 65 farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – are brought back inside on December 18 to be slaughtered for the Christmas market. .

He will then be replaced by other nightmares about how to find workers to treat his slowly maturing birds for the 2022 Christmas season.

Mark Gorton, MD at Traditional Norfolk Poultry, says turkey industry needs more certainty
– Credit: TNP / Mark Gorton

Based in Shropham, near Attleborough, Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP) supplies hundreds of thousands of premium free-range turkeys for the holiday market. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, its 300 employees will be bolstered by 400 festive poultry workers brought together from Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine by Concordia and AG Recruitment – two of the four agencies responsible for bringing in foreign nationals to work in the UK under a temporary visa regime introduced just two months ago.

The visa – which expires on December 31 – was hastily introduced on September 25 after angry farmers warned there would be few cultivated turkeys in Britain to adorn the UK’s festive dinner table this Christmas unless the government takes action and gives it workers to plug the growing gaps.

Mark now heaves a sigh of relief that he will get through December with enough workers to get him across the festive finish line – but the government has taken an ad hoc approach and it is not yet clear whether the program will be. relaunched next year. .

However, the main concern right now is bird flu. As an outdoor grower, he cannot bring his herds indoors – as they would lose their premium status – until or unless ordered by the Ministry of the Environment, to Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

On November 3, it declared an Avian Flu Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across Britain, but the stringent biosecurity measures that entail – such as feeding and watering birds at the shelter – were already in place at NPT farms, said Mark, its managing director.

Nevertheless, the threat is constant as migrating wild birds can introduce the disease at any time.

On November 11, H5N1 was found in birds at premises in Kirby Cross near Frinton-on-Sea – bringing it to Essex following cases in other parts of the country. This was confirmed to be a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain and birds from the affected flock were culled while a temporary control zone was placed around the premises.

Farmers live with risks when choosing which crop to grow and how many animals to keep. They know they can face disease and weather issues, making every season a gamble. And bird flu can still strike a flock outside even when all precautions have been taken and properly observed.

But what annoys Mark is the question of recruiting. According to him, all the government’s new post-Brexit rules do in this case is export the labor because the labor cannot be brought in – only to import the finished product. Thus, a food import is created from what was a local product. At the same time, the demand for British turkeys is increasing. This means that many consumers will have to buy a lower quality imported product made at a lower standard, he argues.

“It just doesn’t make sense. We have all these farms and factories to make these products, ”he says. “It really pisses me off because we’ve all built our businesses and we’ve literally had the carpet under our feet.”

Despite numerous calls, it has not been possible to find British labor for its seasonal workforce, he says. About a quarter of its permanent staff are British while the rest are members of the European Union with colonized status. “There’s no one outside,” he said. “No one ever said, ‘I don’t want to employ Englishmen’, but the simple facts of life are that they are not there. I haven’t had a single Englishman who applied for a job. .

Additional workers under the temporary scheme have now arrived at TNP and the slaughter and processing of birds has started this week. But across the industry there will be fewer British turkeys this Christmas.

“Yeah, we got a visa, and yeah, he basically saved the day at the 11th hour,” he says.

Even so, turkey farmers are very frustrated that although fruit and vegetable producers are benefiting from a new Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme (SAWS) that allows seasonal workers to plant and pick their crops, they have been treated differently. Before Brexit, workers from Eastern Europe in particular came seasonally, working throughout the season, from picking berries to picking vegetables to picking pumpkins.
in the fall, then move seamlessly to processing the turkey.

Now they are so tightly controlled that they have to go home to come back under a different regime.

“It makes us all so angry because you can see what’s going on. It just doesn’t make sense. We have all these farms and factories to make these products.

By the time the recruitment crisis erupted this summer, premium producers like TNP had already rolled the dice and were well into fattening their birds. They start with their day old poults in April-May while mass productions start in August-September.

This meant that very large-scale producers reduced their volumes for fear of not having the manpower to process them. This meant that farms that would normally fill up with birds in the summer did not do so at the same rate.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) – the industry’s trade body – said easing pressure on the workforce means the industry will now ‘overstep the line’ – although the choice is. more restricted at Christmas.

BPC chief executive Richard Griffiths said there would be a bird for “anyone who wants one”.

“We have been able to rationalize the products and reduce the variety, which contributes to the overall volume,” he said.

However, Mark says they will be in short supply.

“There will be fewer British turkeys on the market this year – I’m 100% sure,” he predicts.

“The big companies have downsized because they feared they would not have a workforce – the government did not announce this visa until very late in the day.

The end result was fewer British turkeys, he says.

“It makes no economic sense, it makes no moral sense.”

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