During a session of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee yesterday, which investigated the food supply chain in the wake of COVID-19, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said there were a lot of ingredients “that don’t have a home at the moment”.
She called on the Government to back British food, despite admitting that this might be deemed as “protectionism”. Batters said she would be writing to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask him to support 100% British sourcing.
“Wherever we can look to maximise the opportunities we can, we must take them around British sourcing,” Batters said.
“We have to be very focused with a market the size we have. If we allow imports to flood in, we will just hold our beef industry back.”
Batters reiterated concerns about the meat and dairy markets, which had seen a negative impact due to the closure of out-of-home and foodservice outlets.
She said the NFU was working closely with retailers to drive promotions of prime cuts and steaks and the NFU was “starting to see signs of that working”.
But she claimed the UK could be facing a “tsunami” of Irish beef hitting the market.
The loss of the out-of-home market also saw a “bottleneck” of poultry, with 2m birds that needed to be diverted into retail. The lockdown of other countries such as France also saw a lack of demand for UK lamb shanks, added Batters.
And she noted that issues surrounding the dairy industry were “complex”, affecting not only milk but related products such as cheese.
“I am just hoping and praying that we will get the announcement of a hardship payment from the Government this week,” she added.
Tom Hind, chief strategy officer at the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, said the supply chain had been put under pressure due to the recent panic-buying.
“The supply chain was tested to its absolute limits – at least the domestic supply chain was – in that period in the final two weeks of March. Over time, the industry has managed to overcome that initial rush of panic-buying,” he said.
“It has put retailers and food manufacturers right on the front line in terms of ensuring that the nation is fed.”
Fish & chip shops
He also raised concerns about the potato market, which had been impacted by the closure of fish & chip shops.
Jack Ward, chief executive officer, British Growers Association, said that produce sales had been up between 25% and 30%. He added that it was important to open up the chip market.
“I believe the Dutch and Belgium Governments have agreed support packages for their potato growers for this season. So while we are cutting production of potatoes in the UK, in Holland and Belgium there is a lot of processing capacity,”he said.
“We are looking at a mountain of cheap product, which will impact the market for the 2020 harvest.”
Ward added that, despite press reports, there had been massive interest in the Pick for Britain campaign. Ward said he had been impressed with the commitment of British workers, particularly students. However, he admitted there had been a challenge to recruit British workers for picking in the past as employment had been high in the UK and many of farms were in sparsely populated areas.