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Roast potatoes and pigs-in-blankets: the Christmas foods under threat

Midsection of couple having lunch on dining table at home during Christmas festival
Supermarkets start to build their stockpiles in September, so problems faced now will hit Christmas further down the line. Photo: Getty Images

Britons may not be able all their favourite foods over the holiday season this year as Christmas dinner could be impacted by food shortages in supermarkets. The industry has warned that Brexit, the pandemic and a shortage of lorry drivers is creating serious supply chain issue.

There are about 100,000 fewer lorry drivers than the country needs, and supermarkets including Iceland have warned this will leave gaps on shelves.

Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown, told Yahoo Finance UK that “Christmas dinner is under three different threats”: a shortage of lorry drivers, a shortage of workers at meat processing factories, and potato crops in Europe hit by floods.

“The shortages consumers are seeing from the likes of Nando’s and McDonalds in recent days and weeks highlights the immense impact this is having on businesses across the country,” Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland Foods, told Yahoo Finance UK.

“We have already seen deliveries to our stores cancelled for the first time since the pandemic began, and this is solely due to the heavy goods vehicle driver shortage. “

“The real worry is that time is quickly running out as we approach the extremely busy Christmas period, during which a strong supply chain is vital for everyone.”

Speaking to Radio 4, Walker said: “Soft drinks are 50% less in terms of volume."

Watch: The challenge to get Christmas turkeys on tables

Coles, meanwhile, cited research from the Confederation of British Industry that found that stockpiles held by major retailers are at their lowest since the 1980s. She said supermarkets start to build their stockpiles in September, so problems faced now will hit Christmas further down the line.

The shortage of drivers is not going to be an easy one to fix: it's combination of a perfect storm of Brexit making it less attractive for EU drivers to work in the UK, COVID encouraging workers from overseas to return to their families, and tax rules making it more difficult for drivers to claim they’re self-employed, which means they earn less.

The second threat is a shortage of worker at meat processing factories.

Read more: Why is the UK facing a HGV driver shortage and what could it mean for consumers?

This was already a problem due to the ‘pingdemic’ – workers being asked to isolate by the NHS app because they came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID, even if the workers had been vaccinated.

It's become worse now that the economy has opened up.

Workers would usually be processing frozen meats for the table around this time – like pigs in blankets – and already they are producing less than usual. Turkey production is down 20%.

The British Meat Industry Group has warned meat companies are already around six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules.

“It now looks inevitable that there will be a shortage of the more complicated lines like pigs in blankets and gammon roasts. Given the current workforce shortages, meat companies are finding it difficult to see how they’ll dig themselves out of this,” it warned.

The knock-on effect of not having staff to process meat means farmers can’t send animals to slaughter as they normally would, so many of them have decided to cut back on the number they rear, said Coles.

“At this stage, they’re not predicting empty tables this Christmas, but there’s likely to be far less choice on offer,” she said.

The third threat is a specific threat to roast potatoes, as flooding in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands hits potato crops.

This affects the potatoes usually used for manufacturing chips, but as the industry sources its spuds from elsewhere, it could impact potatoes available for roasting this Christmas as well.

“And that’s just Christmas dinner. There are also warnings that shipping issues and computer chip shortages could mean the shelves are empty of popular presents too,” said Coles.

The message from Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium was not as ominous.

He said: “While we do not anticipate problems, retailers will be taking all necessary measures to mitigate possible disruption."

"This includes paying extra to secure HGV drivers, and bringing non-perishable goods in early, or via alternative routes, to avoid a last minute rush on shipping."

Watch: UK economic recovery falters due to supply chain issues