Unlimited choice in UK supermarkets 'a thing of the past'

The farm-to-fork supply chain is missing half a million workers, industry leader says

The days of seemingly endless choice on the shelves of the UK's supermarkets are over, according to the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation.

Ian Wright on Friday said that a shortage of lorry drivers is in part due to them moving to online retailers and starting to deliver for Amazon and Tesco.

These jobs often offer better hours and pay, said the leader of the UK food and drink manufacturers' organisation.

Mr Wright's prediction comes a day after UK supermarket Morrisons, which has been the subject of a bidding war between two US private equity firms, said a shortage of lorry drivers will push up prices.

The UK's farm-to-fork supply chain is currently missing around half a million of the four million people who usually work in the sector, said Mr Wright.

EU nationals leaving the UK following Brexit – the UK's exit from the EU – and as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are the main factors, he said.

Many businesses have reported problems in their supply chains in recent months, leaving some shelves empty and forcing restaurants to remove items from their menus.

“The result of the labour shortages is that the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants … is no longer working,” Mr Wright told an event organised by London think tank the Institute for Government.

The sector may not be able to recover from the disruption, Mr Wright believes.

However, he did not think there would be food shortages – as seen when UK shoppers panic bought at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic – just less choice.

“What is changing now is that the UK shopper and consumer could previously have expected just about every product they want to be on a shelf or in the restaurant all the time,” he said.

“That’s over, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”

He gave the example of “first-world problem” bottled water, supplies of which ran dry in the east of England last week.

Government sees hope for Christmas

Mr Wright's forecast was dismissed by the Mr Johnson spokesman in favour of hope for Christmas.

“We have got highly resilient food supply chains which have coped extremely well in the face of challenges. We believe that will remain the case” he said.

“We know there are some issues that are facing the sector. We will continue to speak with those involved in those industries to try to ensure we can help them as much as possible.”

When asked if people might expect a “normal Christmas”, the spokesman replied: “I believe so, yes.”

Updated: September 10th 2021, 5:45 PM