Empty supermarket shelves warning as food dumped due to driver shortage

An ‘acute shortage’ of HGV drivers is leading to fresh produce destined for UK supermarkets and restaurants being ‘dumped’ or left rotting’.

A major North West distributor has warned that retailers including Tesco, Asda, Aldi, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose face a shortage of popular items on the shelves, describing it as a “crisis of national importance”.

Tim O’Malley, managing director of Southport-based Nationwide Produce PLC, said “perfectly good, graded and packed fresh produce” is being “dumped or left rotting in cold stores, waiting for wheels to go under it” as there are not enough truck drivers to transport produce across the country.

He said changes to the tax system of HGV agency drivers, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic are all contributing to the current crisis.

Speaking to Fresh Produce Journal, Mr O’Malley said: “In all my years in fresh produce I’ve never seen anything like this.

“For example, we supply one of the largest restaurant chains in the UK. It goes without saying how much they’ve suffered throughout the pandemic. However, business is booming for them at the moment.

“On Sunday, our guy who handles their account received a call from our haulier at 1pm to say that due to a shortage of lorry drivers, they cannot deliver anything to any of the depots for our restaurant customer that evening.

“We reminded them that all the goods were graded and packed and ready to go. They said they simply could not deliver due to a lack of drivers. After hours of begging and pleading we managed to get them to deliver to one of the eight depots.”

He said he had heard of one major supermarket chain that had failed to receive an expected 22 full loads of produce this weekend due to the shortage.

Mr O’Malley said hauliers blamed the shortage on a large proportion of drivers being foreign nationals from European countries who had returned to the EU.

This was combined with truck drivers not being included on the Government’s list of skilled labour, leaving new arrivals needing immigration paperwork.

Covid-19 had seen no new British truck drivers trained within the past 12 months, while changes in the rules of self-employment had led to a 25% increase in agency driver charges.

He said the Government needed to change the tax rules and add foreign drivers to the skilled migrant list to help avert a crisis.

He added: “If not that, perhaps a spike in fresh produce prices as the industry is forced to pass on the huge increase in all labour costs to the consumer.”

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are aware of a fall in HGV driver numbers and are working with their suppliers to ensure that consumers still have the same great selection of fresh produce.

“Nonetheless, a long-term solution is needed, and we need Government to increase the number of HGV driving tests.”

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