Will Supply-Chain Issues Ruin Christmas?
By Anna Russell November 2, 2021
The run-up to the Christmas season in London—manic, festooned—begins exceptionally early. The lights over Regent Street switch on in early November, before the pumpkins have even had time to rot. Seemingly overnight, every little café on every forgotten corner begins to sell packs of fragrant, fruit-filled mince pies. There are traditional pantos, and hipster pantos. At the Natural History Museum’s annual ice rink, people have been drinking mulled wine and skating around a festive tree for about a week already. And why not? The days are short.
The hand-wringing about Christmas began earlier than usual this year. Last year was a bust; amid rising covid-case numbers Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government dithered until the last minute, and then ordered a third of England to stay home, effectively cancelling holiday plans for millions. There’s a palpable sense of making up for lost time. No one wants to be the Grinch. In recent weeks, however, an acute labor shortage in the farming and agricultural sector has cast a decidedly unfestive pall over preparations. Members of Parliament have been forced to confront an unpleasant prospect: What if there’s no Christmas turkey?
As the world moves into another pandemic winter, shortages fuelled by supply-chain issues are cropping up all over. In Denver, public-school children are having a hard time getting milk, Bloomberg reported. In Chicago, there aren’t enough canned goods. In Germany, factories are short of plywood, copper, and semiconductors. In Boston, pasta is on the fritz. The situation looks especially grim in the U.K., which has had to contend with the dual crises of the virus and Brexit-related disruptions. Since January, when new immigration rules went into effect, sectors that have long relied on E.U. workers have found themselves struggling. There are not enough H.G.V. truck drivers or care workers or veterinarians. Most pressingly, in the short term, there are not enough workers to process Britain’s food, at the busiest time of the year.
Some of it has already gone to waste. On Tuesday, representatives from the agricultural sector appeared before a parliamentary committee to give evidence about the labor shortages. Tom Bradshaw, the vice-president of the National Farmers Union, called the current level of waste “completely inexcusable.” In Cornwall, at the far southwestern edge of England, daffodils were dying on their stems with no one to pick them. (Daffodils, which are normally harvested in the winter by seasonal workers, many of them from Eastern European countries, were the first major crop to be impacted by the new immigration rules; a quarter of the flowers were wasted.) Courgettes, apples, and autumn raspberries were going unharvested. Some farmers had stopped growing certain crops altogether, unsure of who would pick them. “I’ve never seen the industry in the position it is in at the moment,” Bradshaw said. The “lack of confidence” was “crippling the sector.”
The impact on the meat industry has been the most dramatic. Charlie Dewhirst, a policy adviser for the National Pig Association, said that understaffed meat-processing plants had led to a surplus of pigs on farms. Overwhelmed farmers, finding no one to take the animals, had been forced to cull some eight thousand pigs—a logistically difficult, traumatic, and ultimately wasteful process. (And those are only the reported numbers; farmers are under no obligation to report cullings.) Things could get much worse in the coming weeks. According to Dewhirst, there are about a hundred and fifty thousand excess pigs that need to be processed, all of which could be culled. “We would rather those animals went into the food supply chain and were feeding the nation than being disposed of on farms, and all the distress that comes with that,” he said.
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Talk turned to Christmas dinner, which in the U.K. revolves around the turkey; Brits consume around nine million birds on the holiday each year. (Scrooge, in “A Christmas Carol,” famously apologizes for being a jerk by offering his poorer relations a fat turkey at Christmas.) Graeme Dear, the chair of the British Poultry Council, called the labor shortages “our single biggest issue that we are facing today.” The poultry workforce was down by sixteen per cent, he said. In September, the government, perhaps fearing a holiday meltdown, announced that it would issue up to five and a half thousand temporary visas for seasonal poultry workers. But the reprieve came late, and the visas take time to process. If the industry had received more notice about the visa scheme, they “could have placed enough turkeys to have a full Christmas,” Dear said. As it stands, some birds will have to be imported. “We’ll do our absolute utmost to make sure that Christmas is as normal as it can be, but there is a likelihood that there will be a shortage.”
The British press has not handled the suggestion of shortages at Christmas with the grace of Tiny Tim. “britons stock up on christmas puddings as sales soar by 76 per cent with shoppers fearing supply crisis will hit festive season,” a headline in the Daily Mail screamed. (Christmas pudding is a sticky dessert the size of a softball, made from dried fruits and brandy. Prepared traditionally, it is steamed for hours, then set on fire.) “turkeys already selling out in supermarkets as christmas panic buying begins,” the Mirror reported. In September, the Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association, which represents “the premium end of the turkey market,” said that some small producers were seeing five times as many turkey orders as last year. One Cornish farm said that customers were trying to order their Christmas turkey in August.
In some ways, the shortages, and the ensuing panic-buying, were entirely predictable. At the parliamentary committee meeting, Sheryll Murray, a conservative M.P. for South East Cornwall, asked the panel for the dominant reasons behind the labor shortages. There was a brief, strained pause before Derek Jarman, of the British Protected Ornamentals Association, which represents plant and flower growers, leaned into the microphone and said, “Right, can I mention the word ‘Brexit’?” Many of the roles that need filling in the U.K. are also available in more welcoming E.U. countries. Polish workers were taking gigs in Germany instead. “I think we as a nation said, ‘We don’t want you.’ And they heard that loud and clear,” Jarman said. When I spoke to Richard Griffiths, the chief executive at the British Poultry Council, he told me that, before Brexit, sixty per cent of the poultry industry’s workers came from outside the U.K. Now many of them have departed. “What we hoped would be a trickle became a flood of people leaving.”
Johnson has mostly framed the situation as either a reaction to the pandemic or necessary growing pains on the way to a better economy. In a recent interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Johnson said that the country could not “simply go back to the tired, failed, old model, reach for the lever called ‘uncontrolled immigration,’ get people in at low wages.” At last month’s Conservative Party conference, he argued for a “high-wage, high-skill” economy. But unemployment levels are low, and many Brits are reluctant to accept seasonal farmwork that takes them away from their homes. The temporary visas being handed down begrudgingly from the government—eight hundred for butchers, for instance—are a short-term solution. The poultry visas seem particularly Scrooge-like: they expire on New Year’s Eve.
The other day, I walked up a hill to my local grocery store. No turkey. The butcher told me to come back in the ten days before Christmas. A specialty butcher shop nearby didn’t have any turkey either, but they assured me that the birds would be in by Christmas. At the big Morrisons down the road, I found turkey crowns and meatballs, but no whole turkeys. There was an array of Christmas-themed magazines for sale, and a deal on mince pies. A sign out front, advertising jobs across the chain’s “manufacturing and logistics” sites, read “Christmas helpers wanted.”