Sensational press about gangmaster labour is putting foreign workers off the UK's agriculture and horticulture sectors, growers have warned.

It was compounding an existing labour shortage and could hit the production of fresh produce in the UK, they said.

Horticulture board chairman Richard Hirst highlighted a BBC documentary uncovering the exploitation of Lithuanian workers by labour providers to the chemical industry in Britain.

"It's not helpful as it tars growers with the same brush. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme is just not like the portrayal on the BBC at all."

Concerns were mounting about the availability of labour for this fruit-picking season, NFU wage board chairman Bob Fiddaman said. The Home Office plans to force farmers to fill all 16,750 permits available on the scheme with Romanians and Bulgarians. But workers are becoming less willing to go into the agriculture and horticulture sectors.

"SAWS operators already find it difficult to source 40% of workers from Romania and Bulgaria. They will struggle to fill the scheme in 2008, as it is likely 100% will have to come from those countries."

He warned of dire consequences if labour cost price increases weren't passed on to the consumer.

"Supermarkets have refused to recognise growers' rising labour costs. Producers may decide not to grow the crops, or, if labour is found, there may be questions about its legitimacy."

S&A Produce, which supplies soft fruit to the multiples, said only 760 of its 3,600 workers would be from Romania and Bulgaria this summer. A spokesman said: "If we were forced to go to 100%, we'd hope the government had ensured the requirement could be met."

A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed SAWS would be restricted to Romanians and Bulgarians, although officials hadn't yet decided whether that would happen next year.