Speaking during a Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee session on COVID-19 and food supply yesterday, Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) told MPs that the quarantine plans were a big concern.
“It is difficult to see how you are going to get round that. Normally there are about 60,000 workers who come in for the harvest,” said Wright.
“We have a lot of other challenges to face and access to labour in this country for harvesting is going to be a big issue.”
This view was reiterated later in the day during the coronavirus daily conference, when Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) minister George Eustice revealed that only about a third of the usual harvest workers from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria were estimated to be in the country, and he called on UK furloughed workers to help.
“One thing is clear and that is we will need to rely on British workers to lend a hand to help bring that harvest home,” he said.
“We believe that those who are furloughed may be getting to the point where they will want to lend a hand and play their part.”
During the committee session, DEFRA was praised for engaging with the industry and offering help to the supply chain.
However, the difficulty of redirecting food from foodservice into retail was highlighted.
James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said the number one issue for the sector was the amount of stock tied up, with no ability to sell.
He said this was specifically around categories such as fresh, chilled and frozen, as well as meat and dairy.
He revealed that, at the start of lockdown, there was £20m of fresh, chilled and frozen stock tied up in food distribution warehouses for the foodservice market. He admitted that some of that product would have had to be thrown away, while some had been unable to be resold or donated to charity, due to the way it was packaged.
Bielby added: “The issue was originally around fresh and chilled. It has now moved to ambient product, so a product with a best-before end date.
“Those products are now going out of date as well, and we have worked with [waste organisation] WRAP to distribute those into the food banks and charities. But that is now a new problem. It is not just meat and dairy, it is now crisps, soft drinks and those types of products too.”
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said there was a point in the crisis where the cold storage for meat was filling up very rapidly.
“It is not easy to take things that have been specifically destined for the foodservice sector and transfer them into retail. It is a different cut altogether and presented in a different way,” he said.
“Some of the plants that were actually committed to the foodservice sector just didn’t have the packing facilities to put it into retail.”
Wright said many food manufacturers had started to plan for social distancing before the lockdown, with everything from shower rooms, restaurants to factory floors being changed.
He highlighted the latest Office of National Statistics figures, which he said revealed that the number of food worker deaths was “really quite small”.
“When you consider that 500,000 workers have been going to work seven days a week for eight weeks, it is quite encouraging that we have not seen major infection rates,” he said.
Allen noted that there were certain places within plants where the two-metre distancing guideline was difficult to achieve, adding that there were also health and safety issues such as using knives with protective barriers.
During the session concerns were also raised about the impact of a second peak for the coronavirus.
Allen said that businesses could not take two hits.
“We can’t really predict what is going to happen with a second spike – and whether we will have one or not. But that should not stop Government signalling their intentions well in advance,” he said.
“You need advanced warning and we had enough shocks going into this. It needs a clear plan – not being told on a Sunday night that, tomorrow, this has changed. We need a clear plan from Government about how we come out of this.”
Wright also urged the Government to introduce a minister for hunger and said there was a lack of ownership for this within the various departments.
Earlier this month, representatives of the British food industry talking to the committee called on the Government to back British food, amid the current coronavirus pandemic.
The Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove told a committee in the House of Lords that the EU’s ask over fisheries is the “most ambitious” in its negotiations with the UK.