UK – Recent research commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has uncovered labor shortages in the food industry, a consequence of Brexit and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, posing a serious threat to both food safety and availability.

The study, conducted by Newcastle University dissects the risks stemming from shortages in crucial positions, including butchers, HGV drivers, food packers, meat hygiene inspectors, official veterinarians, and a range of retail and warehouse staff.

The analysis takes a systems approach, acknowledging the interconnectedness of these roles in the food supply chain.

Since the last quarter of 2021, a surge in voluntary redundancies and early retirements among workers aged 55 and over has hit the agrifood sector hard.

The vacancies left behind, despite efforts to fill them, are proving challenging to replace. Surveys indicate that, despite policy interventions, the industry is grappling with persistent labor shortages, presenting a risk that extends far beyond the simple lack of hands in the workforce.

The report paints a picture of potential consequences. Shortages in food packers and pickers could trigger product scarcity and price inflation, impacting staples like eggs, bread, and produce.

The meat and dairy sector faces a cascade of challenges, from verification complications to safety hazards and potential fraud. Butcher shortages are leaving the industry vulnerable to a range of threats, from biosecurity risks to issues with traceability and safety.

The domino effect of labor shortages is evident across the board, says the study. From the delayed transport of meat risking microbial growth to challenges in border control due to Brexit-related import changes, the implications are far-reaching.

The decline in domestic meat and dairy production, driven by workforce shortages, is forcing the UK to rely more on imports, introducing potential disparities in safety standards.

Amid the gloom, there is a glimmer of hope in the form of technological advancement. The report suggests that digitizing food inspection and introducing more technology could be a game-changer in mitigating the risks associated with food safety, especially in the inspection of fresh produce.

However, the road to reliance on technology may be a long one, leaving immediate challenges unresolved.

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