Poultry sector automates as Brexit decimates labour supply

Two of the poultry industry’s biggest players are investing heavily in automation to mitigate the loss of labour availability as Brexit approaches.

Both Dale Burnett, Noble Foods chief executive, and PD Hook Hatcheries’ James Hook told delegates at the recent Egg and Poultry Industry Conference in South Wales that consolidation and automation were the inevitable response to a shrinking workforce.

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Mr Burnett said Noble was investing £100m to improve automation across its business. He revealed that 60% of the business’s workforce was from overseas, and of those, almost half had said they expect to return home within the next five years.

Noble Foods’ premium dessert business GÜ was one example, Mr Burnett said, with a new £25m factory reducing the need for people, but a third of its output was exported to Europe.

“As of today, I’m unclear as to whether import tariffs will effect that business or not. If it does, we will have to dig even deeper and build a factory in Europe so we can continue to serve that market.”

With regards to the egg market, Mr Burnett said more consolidation was needed to reduce supply and improve prices.

Chick supply

Mr Hook said his chick-hatching business, which supplies 10 million chicks a week – or half the UK market – had closed smaller facilities and farms, and had invested in machinery to reduce the reliance on staff.

The uncertainty Brexit brought had also halted plans for expansion.

“For two years, labour availability has got slowly worse. We’ve got various planning permissions in our business still sitting there unbuilt, plans of quite substantial scale. We’ve had two years now of stagnation and I’m pretty desperate to get going again.”

He added that employees were less prepared to work weekends, and delivery drivers were also becoming increasingly scarce, compounding the sector’s problems.