Inquiry posts early Eustice and Food and Drink Federation submissions

Coronavirus food supply inquiry launched by EFRA committee

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Coronavirus panic buying led to empty shelves in supermarkets
Coronavirus panic buying led to empty shelves in supermarkets

Related tags coronavirus Supply chain

A probe into the coronavirus’ impact on food supply has been launched by the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee.

Evidence submitted in a teleconference call between Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) secretary of state George Eustice and the EFRA committee has already been posted.

In the teleconference, which took place on 24 March, Eustice said there were already early signs panic-buying​ was easing. The Government remained confident there was no overall shortage of food or other groceries, he said.

The implications of restrictions on bulk purchasing for people buying for several other people, such as a warden in sheltered accommodation, was a discussion point. Meeting individuals’ dietary requirements was also discussed.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport was leading calls for volunteers to support food banks​ and it was anticipated their stocks, which had shrunk during panic-buying, would gradually be restored as stockpiling eased.

Reduced migrant labour

DEFRA was having conversations with agricultural and horticulture industries about mitigating the impact of reduced migrant labour flows​ and sickness, said Eustice. Conversations were also ongoing with Department for Work and Pensions about the potential of promoting opportunities for UK workers.

At the time of the conversation, no issues were being detected with fresh produce imports. Flour, for example, was produced in the UK from domestic supplies and there were several months of supply domestically available, Eustice said.

A letter from Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, also written on 24 March and submitted to the inquiry, highlighted problems ensuring key workers had access to childcare and schooling.

“We do not perceive serious supply chain issues as long as we can maintain production capacity at our factories and through related industries including packaging, distribution and the delivery networks,”​ stated Wright. “For example, ensuring that our key workers are prioritised for the available childcare and school places remains critical. We have heard reports that councils are not able to comply with this.”

Wright added it was vital to ensure food manufacturers had enough access to hand sanitiser, cleaning products and personal protective equipment in the midst of high consumer demand. It was also crucial that hard-hit businesses in foodservice and hospitality had swift access to the Government’s pledged emergency financial support packages.

What the EFRA committee inquiry will tackle

The inquiry will tackle how the supply chain disruption caused by the crisis should be managed and consumers’ level of access to healthy food during self-isolation.

The committee will initially identify current problems and strategies for mitigating potential risks, and is seeking written evidence on the following questions, with a deadline of Friday 1 May​: 

  • Have the measures announced by the Government to mitigate the disruptions to the food supply chain caused by the pandemic been proportionate, effective and timely? 
  • Are the Government and food industry doing enough to support people to access sufficient healthy food; and are any groups not having their needs met? If not, what further steps should the Government and food industry take?  
  • What further impacts could the current pandemic have on the food supply chain, or individual elements of it, in the short- to medium-term and what steps do industry, consumers and the Government need to take to mitigate them? 
  • How effectively has the Government worked with businesses and non-governmental organisations to share information on disruptions to the supply chain and other problems, and to develop and implement solutions? How effectively have these actions been communicated to the public?

'Empty shelves’

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of resilience in our food supply chains,”​ said EFRA committee chairman Neil Parish. “Of equal importance is good communication with the public; assuring them that food will continue to be available. We have seen empty shelves at local supermarkets, and many of our constituents remain anxious about extended periods of self-isolation during which buying food could be difficult. 

“Measures have been taken to deal with the impacts of panic-buying, but there are still questions that must be answered urgently. The right strategies are needed to ensure the supply chain keeps moving, from domestic farming and food imports to the delivery of food to those who need it the most.

“The impact of the pandemic on the workers who keep us fed, from the field through factories to the checkout and doorstep delivery, has to be managed. We must ensure that everyone has access to enough healthy food, and crucially that those self-isolating, or struggling to afford food, are not forgotten.” 

Food suppliers and service providers have united in efforts to boost jobs​ and services​ to support consumers and those in the industry who have been worst affected.

Related topics Supply Chain COVID-19

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