FRESH produce headed for UK supermarkets is being dumped due to driver shortage linked to Brexit, a major distributor has warned.

The “acute shortage” of HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers is behind “perfectly good, graded and packed fresh produce being dumped or left rotting in cold stores, waiting for wheels to go under it”, Nationwide Produce managing director Tim O’Malley said.

O’Malley told the Fresh Produce Journal that the shortage was leading to supermarket shelves and restaurant plates going empty, describing it as a “crisis of national importance”.

He said hauliers are blaming the shortage on a large proportion of drivers being foreign nationals from European countries, who had returned to the EU following Brexit.

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

He told the journal: “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.”

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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.

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 UK 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.”