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UK hatchery closures combined with an avian flu outbreak in Germany have left goose suppliers struggling to meet demand

First it was turkey. Now it’s goose which festive shoppers will face shortages of this Christmas.

The closure of the only two hatcheries in the UK combined with an avian flu outbreak in Germany this year have left goose suppliers of all sizes struggling to meet demand.

Gressingham Foods, the UK’s largest goose supplier, said its bird numbers are down by 13% this year despite efforts to acquire the same amount.

“We had to share the shortage across our customers,” said MD Chris Morley. “We didn’t just pick one retailer and say right, that’s it, we’re not going to supply you.”

Gulliver’s and Norfolk Geese – the last two British hatcheries – both closed their doors due to a lack of investment in new machinery and facilities. It means there will be no British-born geese in years to come.

“There is no longer anybody in this country producing goslings suitable for the table,” said one Cotswolds-based farmer. “It’s a sad state we’ve got into that the only place you can get goslings is from Germany.”

Yet Germany itself has faced problems with goslings this year after an avian flu outbreak forced a mass cull of birds.

Smaller suppliers have borne the greatest burden of the shortfall, with some farmers seeing supplies down by around a third, said Phillip Hunter, owner of Suffolk Turkeys.

Goose is a rarer sight on Christmas tables than in its Victorian heyday, with annual supermarket sales of just under £1.2m [NielsenIQ 52 w/e 11 September].

Poultry sector warns it may be ‘too late’ to avoid Christmas shortages, despite visa scheme

Gressingham has cut processing from around 90,000 geese 10 years ago to about 54,000 in 2020. With demand for fresh birds falling, “the markets dropped down naturally as cheap EU birds came into the marketplace, particularly frozen”, said Morley. 

The bird’s popularity has seen a small uptick in the mults in recent years, however. Volumes grew 31.5% between 2019 and 2020 and units sold climbed 73% during the same period [The Grocer Top Products/Nielsen 52 w/e 5 September 2020].

And British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths insisted “demand is still there” for the birds, with more than 200,000 geese eaten every Christmas.

It comes as shoppers also face up to a 20% shortfall of turkeys this Christmas, due to the impact of the ongoing labour crisis on production.

As The Grocer first reported in July, uncertainty over staff numbers had led suppliers to prepare a fifth fewer birds for the Christmas period than they had done last year.

Avara Foods CEO Andy Dawkins told The Grocer in August the crisis would lead to an increase in sales of frozen turkeys this year and a long-term shift to more frozen birds over the coming years.

And even after the government announced a temporary visa scheme for up to 5,500 foreign workers back in September, concerns remain over the impact the scheme can have on this year’s festive supplies.