Richard North, 12/07/2021  

There is a nine-square-mile area of West Yorkshire bounded roughly by Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, known as the "Rhubarb Triangle", famed for its production of early forced rhubarb.

It used to be a lot bigger, extending into Leeds and Bradford, alongside what is now the M62. Even in my day, in the early to mid-70s when I was a district food inspector covering Rothwell and district, it was home to a sizeable industry, with several hundred growers.

Now, there are only about ten of eleven growers left and, if you know what you are looking for as you drive north up the M1 to the junction with the M62 and then travel west, you will see the derelict shells of some of the forcing sheds. Most of them, though, have now gone.

When decline sets in to any industry, there are usually multiple reasons but, for those of us who knew the area well, there was one key reasons why the decline accelerated in the mid-70s. This was the disruption of the unique, symbiotic relationship between rhubarb growing and the Christmas turkey trade.

This relationship emerged with growing prosperity and the popularity of turkeys for the Christmas meal. And, by happy coincidence, the long, low forcing sheds (windowless and often brick-built with slate roofs) were not only optimal for the job of rhubarb forcing (for which they were built). They were also ideal for turkey rearing.

The second coincidence, which made the trade possible, was the timing. The rhubarb season usually ended mid-to late March, when the sheds were cleared out, and they were re-stocked late December to mid-January. This left plenty of time for the 28 weeks or so needed to rear a crop of turkeys, in time for Christmas.

For the industry, this was hugely advantageous. It cross-subsidised the highly labour-intensive rhubarb growing process and provided year-round employment for local workers. As an added bonus, the manure produced by the birds was used to fertilise the rhubarb.

The turkeys were usually killed on-farm with minimum official supervision (and very often none at all apart from a pre-season visit). They would usually be dry-plucked and sold, uneviscerated in a process known (for reasons I have never been able to fathom) as New York Dressing (NYD). Most were sold to local butchers but some were sold on and even reached the wholesale market in Smithfield, where they were highly prized and fetched premium prices.

What ruined this trade was our entry into the EEC in 1972 and the coming into force of Directive 71/118/EEC, about which I have written several times on this blog, most notably here and here, largely from the perspective of environmental health officers.

But the impact on the NYD turkey trade was drastic. Firstly, the Directive prohibited NYD, requiring immediate evisceration at the time of killing, so that the guts and cavities could subject to mandatory inspection by official veterinary surgeons or "assistants" under their supervision.

Secondly, because the process now became a fully-fledged food processing operation, killing areas had to be massively ungraded, with acres of stainless steel and extra rooms and facilities. The farm buildings commonly used were no longer deemed acceptable.

The combined blows of upgrading costs and veterinary inspection fees - for turning out an inferior (and vastly more contaminated) product which no longer attracted premium prices - forced most of the producers out of business. And, without the cross-subsidy, the rhubarb industry also took a hit, contributing significantly to its contraction to the size it is today.

To add insult to injury, in 2010, just a decade before we were to leave the EU, "Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb" was awarded "protected food name" status, under the EU's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme, which has been carried over post-Brexit. Few will have appreciated the irony.

What now gives this tale of woe added piquancy and a degree of topicality is summed up in a whinge conveyed by the Guardian, which tells us: "UK food worker shortages push prices up and risk Christmas turkey supplies". This is amplified by the sub-heading: "Dearth of delivery drivers, abattoir staff and fruit pickers caused by Covid and Brexit are fuelling wage rises with five percent hike in prices forecast".

The piece, incidentally, is written by journalist Sarah Butler, who seems to have difficulty with consistency in spelling the word "abattoir", as she writes: "Industry insiders say that pay for lorry drivers and other supply chain workers, including abbatoir (sic) workers, plus vegetable and fruit pickers and packers have all risen because of difficulties in finding sufficient staff".

This brings us neatly into the territory which has been covered by Pete, who argues that Brexit is the opportunity to rethink our supply chain and food safety systems.

The net outcome of Directive 71/118/EEC was to give a tremendous boost to mega-producers such as Bernard Matthews and their massive processing plants which collectively slaughter nearly seven million turkeys each year.

It is plants such as those operated by the company that rely on immigrant workers, serviced by a fleet of HGVs delivering mediocre bulk products to supermarkets at prices which traditional, artisan producers have not been able to match.

Yet the difference between the factory-produced product and the locally reared and slaughtered bird is easily worth the premium price for most buyers in what is still, mainly, an annual purchase for the Christmas celebrations.

Before the interference of the EEC (and its continued intervention right up to the point when we left the EU), we could have had a healthy network of local producers which would be capable of picking up the slack, and reducing our dependence on imported labour and long-distance delivery trucks.

Now, we end up with the bizarre situation where we not rely on bog-standard mass-produced foods, we are also having to pay extra for them. Thus we have Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, warning of food price rises in the order of five percent in the second half of this year.

Tony Goodger, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (Aims), adds that problems in the meat processing industry mean that firms are paying at least 10 percent more for staff than before the pandemic. "Those costs have got be passed on", he says.

Additionally, the poultry sector is facing an acute shortage of CO2 gas (despite global warming), which is used in factory processing in the slaughter process to stun birds before they are killed, and to create the modified packaging atmospheres that extend shelf life – neither of which apply to artisan production. Shortages are so acute that poultry plant operators are warning that throughput may be disrupted and animal welfare issues might emerge.

Here, as with the labour force problems, it appears that the lessons are not being learned. Government officials have been holding emergency talks with retailers, wholesalers and logistics groups to address the shortage of drivers and other workers.

And, we are told, ministers have launched secret talks on a short-term visa scheme for foreign lorry drivers "as they race to prevent a shortage of staff from overwhelming the haulage industry".

As a "quick fix" this is barely, if at all, a solution – especially as the labour shortage is Europe-wide. The crisis cries out for a longer-term solution, which must include efforts to restructure many of our basic industries.

However, as with the rhubarb story, many of the fundamental reasons for our current troubles are lost in the sands of time, known only to those few who were around to witness the downwards slide starting to accelerate. But if our government and industries cannot grasp the restructuring opportunity offered by Brexit, there is little hope that things will improve.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few