Labour availability in Ireland's food & drink sector is now a "critical issue", according to representative body Food Drink Ireland.

In its latest quarterly Business Monitor, the Ibec group said the sector needs to attract and retain skilled workers and address labour shortages.

FDI Director Paul Kelly says labour availability "is now a critical issue within agri-food," adding that "many food processors are facing a serious challenge in securing the necessary labour resources at general operative level.

"Despite the ongoing significant efforts to recruit from the Irish and European labour force, the critical nature of the current situation is deepening as the economy approaches full employment again.

"The situation has now deteriorated to levels where it is having a real impact at individual factory level and negatively impacting the ability of companies to plan for expansion and indeed to meet day-to-day operational demands to service existing customers."

Food Drink Ireland is calling on Government to "urgently extend the employment permit schemes" across food processing in order to prevent labour shortages from impacting on existing business and growth prospects.

According to FDI, food and drink companies spent €21m on formal training in 2016 - the highest amount of any manufacturing sector.

The latest business monitor also indicates food prices continue to fall, decreasing by 2.2% in the year to October, while employment levels in the sector continue to increase and rose by 3% in Q3 2018 when compared with the same period in 2017.