George EusticeGeorge Eustice © Jonathan Page

The uncertainty created by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union dominated discussion at this year’s Epic – which celebrated 50 successful years.

The owner of a leading poultry business has called on the government to clarify its position on the availability of labour when Britain exits the UK.

James Hook, of PD Hook Hatcheries, said the poultry industry felt left “in the dark” over plans to restrict access to European labour, upon which the sector was dependent.

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Mr Hook made the plea to farming minister George Eustice in a question and answer session following his speech at this year’s Epic.

“We need tens of thousands of people to work in processing factories, packing stations and hatcheries. We are genuinely very worried at this time.

“For those of us in this industry to continue what we’re doing, we need free access to European labour.”

Mr Eustice responded by saying that, though immigration was mainly an issue for the Home Office, Defra would be “working very closely… as we start to give thought to what future policy in terms of migrant labour might be”.

He said that although the country was leaving the EU, and taking more control of immigration, it didn’t mean the UK would be “pulling up the drawbridge”, adding: “We will end the complete free-for-all. What we could put in place are approaches where you would allow work permits for certain sectors. You might have a migration project where you recognise where certain skills gaps are.”

Prospects

Mr Eustice, who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, was bullish about Britain’s future as an independent nation state.

He accused the European system of being a block to good governance, and suggested Britain’s influence on the global stage was held back by its ties to the continent.

Mr Eustice said the freedom to draw up legislation, develop a new agricultural policy and forge new trade deals would all improve prospects for British farmers.

“The countries that deliver trade deals most effectively are independent nation states that have the agility and ability to get things done.”

But the Independent news website’s chief political columnist Steve Richards told the conference there would be at least a decade of uncertainty following the Brexit vote.  

Given that Britain would not leave the EU until at least 2019, it would be the government of 2020-2025 that made decisions on any new legislation, he said.

Four targets for poultry industry lobbying

Heather McGregor

Heather McGregor © Jonathan Page

Heather McGregor, perhaps better known as the Financial Times’ Mrs Moneypenny columnist, identified four ministers who needed to be “marked” in the poultry industry’s lobbying efforts post-Brexit.

Amber Rudd: Home secretary

It doesn’t matter what part of the poultry industry you are in, according to Ms McGregor, “You will be using a lot of relatively straightforward labour. There is a lot of unskilled labour – doesn’t matter how many robots are able to scrape up manure, there will always be a need for people.”

David Davis: Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

Mr Davis is responsible for our trade deals with the EU.

Joe Johnson: Universities minister

Ms McGregor questioned whether the UK’s position on GM crops may change, and said maintaining or improving funding for animal science would be a key lobbying concern.

Andrea Leadsom: Defra secretary

“This is the woman ultimately who will steer whatever legislation is necessary,” said Ms McGregor. “She will need serious man-to-man marking. But the opportunity is a very positive one – at the moment it’s like ground zero. Collectively [the poultry industry’s] influence is probably far greater than it realises.”

Conference soundbites

A hovering helicopter

© High Level/REX/Shutterstock

“I would have never realised there was so much money in eggs” – Professor Heather McGregor on the discovery that Noble Foods was able to fund a helicopter for executive staff.

“A typical politician’s answer” – the Independent newspaper’s Steve Richards on George Eustice’s assurance that labour availability “was being thought about”.

“Between 2006 and 2020, there’s been a 62% rise in the cost of employee pay” – Matthew Davies on the combination of minimum wage increases and pension contributions that have pushed up labour bills.

“Those were the days… of unbelievable profits” – Derek Kelly on turkey farming in the 1960s.

“We’re losing that battle” – Tyson Foods chief executive on the need to communicate a positive message to consumers.

Celebrating 50 Epic years

The Egg and Poultry Industry Conference has come a long way since its inception back in 1966, when it was known simply as the Poultry Industry Conference, and held at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne.

This year marked record attendance, with the event enjoying a third successful year at the Celtic Manor, South Wales.

To commemorate the milestone, conference organiser Howard Birley and chairman Stephen Lister have written a history of the poultry industry – itself not much older than 50 years.

Mr Lister said the document was an important record of the sector, but would remain a “living document”, and it was hoped people could add to and improve it as the years went on.

Influenza concern

Poultry farmer Matthew Davies highlighted the industry’s vulnerability to avian influenza.

Matthew Davies

Matthew Davies © Jonathan Page

He said the biggest concern for the UK industry was that there were enormous poultry populations very close to one another. If the country ended up with a US-style avian influenza outbreak in the UK, it would be very difficult to control.

He said: “I don’t mean to knock the current system, but Defra would not cope with it.”

Davies added: “Looking at our European colleagues, they clean up in a cost-effective manner and very quickly. It doesn’t take three weeks to kill birds – it takes a day. It’s that sort of efficiency we need to bring to our industry.”

Earlier in the conference, George Eustice said Defra had become adept at dealing with outbreaks, given their relative frequency, but acknowledged clean-up procedures could be smoother.

Awards

Peter Kemp Award for Outstanding Contribution to the British Egg Industry, received on behalf of winner Steve Horton by Noble Foods’ Dale Burnett Awards

Clive Frampton Memorial Award – picture shows Dr Steven Pace (right) receiving his award from Oakland Farm Eggs’ Elwyn Griffiths

BPC/For Farmers Poultry Person of the YearJohn Campbell, Glenrath Foods, offering his thoughts  

EPIC 50 Years Lifetime Achievement Award – a special one-off award, given to Derek Kelly, chairman of Kelly Turkeys