A third of businesses across the UK’s food and drink supply chain could become “unviable” without access to EU workers, according to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
In a report, Breaking the Chains, the FDF said the country’s £110bn food supply chain would be at risk should current Brexit negotiations not result EU nationals being able to work in Britain.
Ian Wright, director general of the FDF, called on the government to secure the rights of EU nationals. He said without a dedicated workforce available to the industry, they would be unable to feed the nation as they do now.
“What we don’t want is a sudden switch-off of the availability of EU workers who are part of the lifeblood of our industry,” he said.
“Food is a matter of national security, so the results of this report are of central concern to businesses across the ‘farm to fork’ industries.
“It is only a matter of time before the uncertainty reported by businesses results in an irreversible exit of EU workers from these shores. This is a scenario that will hurt the UK culturally and economically.”
The report surveyed 627 businesses and included input from trade bodies throughout the food and drink supply chain, including the Association of Labour Providers, the British Retail Consortium, the Fresh Produce Consortium and the National Farmers’ Union.
There are 2m EU nationals within the UK economy, 20% of whom are working in the food and drink supply chain, making the sector particularly exposed to uncertainty, the report said.
In the survey, 36% of firms said their business models would fail if they could not hire EU nationals and 17% said they would shift their operations overseas.
Meanwhile, 30% said they had already seen EU nationals depart since the Brexit vote.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said supply chain would endure a “significant disruption” if there was a sudden halt in EU workers coming into the industry.
“EU workers are key to getting British food on our shelves—from producing food, through transport to colleagues in stores—they are vital in providing the service and quality British consumers demand,” he said.
“To deliver a fair Brexit for consumers and tackle uncertainty, EU colleagues currently working in the retail industry and the wider food supply chain need further clarity about their status once the UK leaves the EU.”
Prime minister Theresa May has previously stated that the government would guarantee the rights of EU citizens already in residence in Britain but the details of a future immigration system are still unclear.
Responding to the report, the government said any immigration system put in place after Brexit would have to work in the best interests of the UK.
“Crucial to the development of this will be the views from a range of businesses, including the agricultural, food, drink and manufacturing sectors,” it said.
“We will be setting out our initial proposals for this system in the autumn but we have already been clear there will be an implementation period after we leave the EU to avoid a cliff edge for businesses.”
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