ONE of Scotland’s leading food producers has warned that the food and drink industry will suffer if access to skilled labour is adversely impacted by Brexit.

Sean Austin, managing director of Livingston-based shortbread manufacturer Paterson Arran, said: “Scotland’s food and drink industry already has a skills issue. If we can’t get access to labour, manufacturers are likely to turn to automation.”

Speaking at an industry event held by executive search specialists Livingston James, law firm MacRoberts and accountancy firm Johnston Camichael, Mr Austin said that while some businesses may benefit as they will need fewer people overall, they will need more highly-skilled labour. “This will be a challenge for us all as the oil industry continues to recover and sucks in skilled engineers,” he added.

“Tariffs will be a huge issue for food and drink manufacturers and while Paterson Arran is a relatively small exporter country of origin will also be an issue if we don’t have the right agreement.

“Businesses like ours are working hard on contingency plans but some of this investment will be wasted because not all of the scenarios will come to pass.”

His views were shared by other senior food and drink industry figures at the event which provided a platform to discuss the implications of Brexit for the sector along with its ambitious plans to double its value to £30 billion by 2030.

Ben Walker, head of food and drink at Livingston James, said that while the potentially negative impact of Brexit on securing labour for certain sectors such as fruit and vegetable production, or fish farming, had been well documented, there was less awareness of how it could affect more senior roles.

“We regularly recruit internationally for top food and drink jobs including researchers and senior management,” he said. “There is a real danger that our businesses will not be competitive if we can’t recruit the best people.”

The food and drink event was held before Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit White Paper which would end the automatic free movement of people into the UK from the EU but proposes a “mobility framework” which would allow easy movement for work or study.

Johnston Camichael’s head of food and drink, Adam Hardie, described the event as a “great forum for senior business figures to come together and share information”. He said: “We were keen to gather our clients and contacts together to discuss the issues around Brexit.”

The firm’s Glasgow office recently launched a specialist food and drink team.