There’s no denying that almost every industry in the UK will be affected by Brexit in 2019, but the fresh produce sector is set to be one of the hardest hit. Reliant for so long on cheap, Eastern European workers, staffing levels have been falling significantly since the Brexit vote, and the situation is only likely to get worse.
Britain’s food and drink industry employs the highest share of EU migrant workers (30 per cent) compared with any other UK sector, employing around one fifth of the two million EU nationals working in Britain. This figure is at its highest on fruit and vegetable farms, where 99 per cent of workers come from Eastern Europe. However, according to the National Farmers’ Union, in the crucial harvest month of September 2017, 29 per cent of roles went unfilled, the first shortfall since records began back in 2014.
The need for automation
The obvious solution to the Brexit labour shortage on farms and packhouses around the UK is to automate, but this is a sector which has so far been slow to do so; the main reason being cost. Unlike bakery or other factory-produced goods, which are identical and repetitive, fresh produce is variable – no two items are the same. This requires an automation system which is flexible; but flexibility comes at a price. Fresh producers work to tight profit margins, typically just 3%, so the budget for automation investment just hasn’t been there. But Brexit will mean that they have no choice. Without automation, they simply won’t survive.
The question then is, who will ultimately pay for it? As the largest supplier of equipment into the salad sector, totaling £3m worth of machines, we speak to lots of fresh producers. Many of them are changing the way they work with the large retailers, and are increasing their profits as a result. Instead of having an exclusive deal with one supermarket, to whom they supply a range of products around the country, growers are concentrating on fewer products – sometimes just one – and supplying them to a number of retailers within a smaller radius. Their growing and transport costs are reduced as a result, and they are better protected against the unethical price squeezing that the big retailers have been accused of in recent years. Their margins are therefore increasing and this could help to pay for automation.
There may also be a price to pay on the shop floor. If our sense of nationalism and pride in all things British increases after Brexit, shoppers may be willing to pay a bit extra for British products carrying the Assured Food Standards’ Red Tractor quality mark, which could also help to cover some of the cost of automation.
Shoppers may be willing to pay extra for British products carrying the Assured Food Standards’ Red Tractor quality mark, which could help to cover some of the cost of automation
Aside from Brexit, the other main factors influencing the fresh produce sector are waste reduction and convenience. Consumers are demanding smaller packs of peeled and/or cut fresh goods, perfect for lunchboxes, and are also looking for extra convenience, for example individual items such as dressing and crouton sachets included within bags of salad. We’re working with a number of producers to develop automated packaging solutions to meet these trends, and expect demand for convenience-led packaging to grow throughout 2019.
Watching your waste-line
Regarding waste, we’ve recently developed a unique overhead barrette system that enables producers to pack a small number of fresh items unsupported, ie without cardboard or acetate trays to hold them in place. In the past, it’s been a challenge to pack unsupported because fresh produce moves on the line, but our system supports and controls the product from above, keeping it in position. As a result, only packaging film is required.
To reduce packaging waste, there will also be greater numbers of unsupported packs of fresh produce in 2019
Our machine, the Carrera 1000, is currently being prepared to handle unsupported packs of two potatoes and two avocados. It is also suitable for a variety of fresh produce, including apples, onions, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, aubergines, peppers, leeks, spring onions and unbunched herbs. As a way of helping reduce packaging waste, we foresee a big demand for it.
A plastic-free future?
Finally, no debate around the future of fresh produce would be complete without mentioning plastic. We are committed to helping food factories reduce their use of non-recyclable plastics packaging and have worked with materials manufacturer Four04 to develop a breakthrough heating technique and sealing jaw coating to successfully seal EVAP – a clear, high-gloss film rate which is compostable to the EN 13432 standard.
We have successfully adapted one of our vertical flow wrapping systems, the Vegatronic, to run this compostable film and are confident that we’ll be able to upgrade our horizontal machines, too.
The Vegatronic vertical bagger is successfully running EVAP film compostable to the EN 13432 standard with 100% seal
Want to know more or discuss a machine trial?
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