The impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain
18 May 2020
The COVID-19 health crisis has caused significant disruption to our day to day lives. While this is necessary to protect our lives and health, how has this affected the food and drink sector especially the food supply chain?
From travel restrictions to social distancing, consumers stockpiling goods and hospitality businesses forced to close, a lot has changed in a short space of time. Takeaway establishments have been dealing with increased demand as consumers are now home-based and must navigate how to work safely while complying with social distancing rules and guidelines to protect themselves, their staff and customers. Supermarkets had to put in place restrictions on certain items as customers bought products in bulk, for example, canned goods, pasta and rice to ensure that there was enough to go around while also implementing strict social distancing guidelines for shopping safely and protecting the health of their employees.
The food supply chain is crucial to these operations. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations put out a statement on how countries should be responding to the risk COVID-19 poses to their food supply system:
“In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going. Restricting trade is not only unnecessary, it would hurt producers and consumers and even create panic in the markets. For high-value commodities that require workers for production, countries must strike a balance between the need to keep production going and the need to protect the workers.”
Labour shortages and farming
While food supply is currently stable, a major concern for the coming months is a shortage of labour to deal with the late summer harvest. This typically relies on transient, seasonal workers to manage which will be difficult with social distancing measures and travel restrictions in place, running the risk of crops going to waste instead of being adequately harvested and supplied to food and drink manufacturing companies. High-value commodities, like fruit and vegetables, will be at a higher risk of logistical disruptions due to their perishability.
It’s estimated that over 60,000 seasonal workers travel to the UK annually to take up jobs on farms and harvest produce. Without this, there will be a shortage of 80,000 labourers according to the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), a figure which also takes into account possible illness and the spread of COVID-19 amongst farm workers. The CLA are calling out for people who are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic to take up temporary positions to make up the deficit. Supermarkets are in a similar situation, as they are facing a huge increase in demand, leading to them recruiting across the industry through the Feed the Nation campaign.
Another key part of the food supply chain is transportation. Labour shortages are a factor here too. In areas such as truck driving, reduced workers will make it harder to transport food from production and suppliers to supermarkets and wholesalers.
In his book Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, Tim Lang discusses the insecurity of the current food system in the UK, pointing out that “the UK has undue food reliance on external sources- about a third of UK food is from the EU. The UK grows a little over half its food needs.” This concern is particularly relevant in the current climate with border restrictions and our appetite for foods imported from other countries. Supermarkets and fresh food providers may need to focus on the availability of seasonal fruit and vegetables and crops that are grown in the UK and face restrictions on being exported.
The food and drink manufacturing sector is also having to adapt to rapid changes in consumer needs and demand. After the lockdown was put in place, this forced restaurants, cafes and food outlets to close. Due to the number of people now working from home, or who are out of work as a result of the pandemic, the demand for on-the-go food has diminished. While some takeaways and restaurants are still operating a delivery only service, the majority of consumers are reliant on supermarkets and direct-to-consumer online deliveries to feed themselves and their families. Increasing numbers of individuals are facing financial struggles due to redundancy or losing self-employed income as a result of the coronavirus, meaning that they have less disposable income to spend on luxury items or convenience foods.
Looking beyond COVID-19
Feedback, an organisation who campaign for sustainable food production, have identified three possible scenarios of what could happen next, stating: “one lesson of this pandemic is that events do not unfold along expected pathways.” Scarcity of food, a patchy food system or a prioritisation of food safety and distribution are the possibilities they’ve identified. What’s clear, is that the handling of the food supply chain over the next couple of months will be critical in what happens next.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations goes on to say that “the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to identify the bottlenecks and address them.” Food and drink manufacturing companies are innovating in order to adapt and survive while the lockdown continues. For example, some distilleries and breweries are producing hand gel both for the general public and for healthcare workers, while others try out direct delivery services to their customers.
If anything, this situation will draw companies’ awareness to areas of their supply chain that are not resilient to the unexpected. This will give them the opportunity to address this and look at how they can change things to ensure they are equipped to deal with difficult situations as best they can. Introducing a software solution is one way to do this, particularly when working with numerous different people and suppliers where many people are remote or on the road a lot. Find out how our food supplier management software can support and improve the resilience of your food supply chain.
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations- COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond? http://www.fao.org/3/ca8388en/CA8388EN.pdf
 Tim Lang Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, Pelican Books
 Feeback- What Does COVID-19 Mean for the UK Food System? https://feedbackglobal.org/what-does-covid-19-mean-for-the-uk-food-system/