The British meat industry is calling on the government to urgently lift EU visa restrictions for thousands of foreign butchers to help resolve the UK's labour shortage.
Emergency measures have already been introduced to help attract more lorry drivers following the recent fuel shortage in the UK and for poultry workers.
Before Brexit – the UK's departure from the EU in 2020 – and the pandemic, 80 per cent of staff in two of the UK's largest meat processing plants were from Eastern Europe.
National Farmers' Union President Minette Batters has called on the government to act to avert an “animal welfare crisis” in parts of the industry.
"This will be an animal welfare crisis if it is not resolved,” she told BBC's Newsnight. “This cannot happen – it is potentially a week to 10 days away, and it has to be resolved.”
The British Meat Processors Association says it is short of 15,000 butchers.
Butcher Mark Freeman, who runs Artizan Meat Pioneers in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in northern England, said he has seen a major issue with his suppliers struggling to recruit staff and deliver products.
“There is a major shortage of butchers in the processing plants,” he told The National.
“But also, of delivery drivers. We have had delayed deliveries and it has a knock-on effect on our customers and on the restaurants we supply.
"We have found ourselves having to drive for miles to find stock for our regular suppliers.
“Being a butcher is a specialised trade, you cannot just drag someone off the street.
“It is an old, traditional skill set that is dying out and the government needs to act fast to ensure we can attract qualified people into these roles.”
Peter Hardwick, a trade policy adviser at the British Meat Processors Association, said even though wages have risen by up to 20 per cent, firms still cannot attract butchers.
He warns that unless the situation is resolved consumers will be seeing empty shelves.
“EU workers are leaving or have already left. They now either won’t or can’t come back, with butchery and related skills not on the shortage occupation list,” he said.
“When this is raised with the government it is dismissed summarily with the suggestion that we simply need to pay more.
“Wages have risen sharply, by as much as 20 per cent, and yet it still proves impossible to sustainably recruit local staff, who do not want to do this type of work."
Britain tightened its immigration rules after the country's full departure from the EU in January, which ended free movement of people and workers across the bloc.
The government last weekend announced a temporary visa waiver for 5,000 foreign lorry drivers to try to tackle worsening supply chain issues.
Many foreign lorry and tanker drivers left after Brexit and during the coronavirus pandemic. This has hit supermarket deliveries and fuel supplies, leading to panic-buying.
Ministers announced temporary visas for poultry workers, as concerns grow that turkeys will be short supply at Christmas.
Retail and hospitality, which are also experiencing high seasonal staff vacancies, also want foreign workers to be allowed back.