By Peter Martin
Apart from the queues and early shortages of eggs, pasta and flour, the British public has not, in general, had a problem being fed during the COVID crisis.
The food supply chain has held up, and supermarket shelves are well stocked. That’s not to say it’s been easy.
Wholesalers serving hospitality saw business disappear overnight. Many reacted quickly to try to offset the impact, re-engineering their operations to offer home delivery and click & collect services to consumers, and by delivering care packs to the vulnerable and NHS workers.
But damage has been done, only underlined this week by the news that a giant of the sector Bidfood is considering proposals to restructure its business. But at least Bidfood is still with us, because the hospitality and foodservice sector is going to need it and its fellow distributors to get up and running quickly as the country’s pubs, restaurants and hotels prepare for their own reopening next month.
As Bidfood CEO Andrew Selley said this week, his focus is to keep his operations ‘agile and able to respond to customers’ changing needs’. That adaptability of food supply is also what allowed the retail side of the supply chain to step up at the start of lockdown and increase capacity, and ensure shortages were short-lived.
The truth is that our own domestic supply chains are part of a complex, interdependent, US$8 trillion global network, able to respond to bad harvests, labour shortages and even the pressures of a worldwide pandemic. It’s not perfect by any means but it works – and largely free of governmental interference.
Yes, there is a major debate about the influence of multinationals and the role of regulation, but governments, as our own has consistently shown, are not renowned for their organisational skills - and complex networks can be too easily knocked off balance by outside change no matter how well-intentioned.
So the fact that the UK Government is now ready to reset the rules on food supply in Britain should ring warning bells. It is not just about Brexit, and that’s a big enough challenge, but the Agriculture Bill now going through parliament and the trade talks underway with the rest of the world, most notably the United States – and all this is at a time when COVID has put unimagined pressure on world food supply.
The fact that hospitality has been asking UK ministers for a three to four week lead-in time to restock before reopening, and the government has given the industry less than two, just demonstrates how little it understands food and drink supply and production. There is a story doing the rounds that a senior minister only thought that pubs wanted three weeks warning before opening because that was the time needed for brewers to produce enough beer – not that we needed to get food back in warehouses or delivery fleets back in place.
The hospitality sector is, understandably, heads down planning for the reopening of the sector, so it would be easy to put these broader issues to one side or to leave to someone else. But, hospitality operators collectively and individually need to engage in this wider debate on the future of food now, whatever your views – before it is literally too late. We should all know the law of unintended consequences well enough in this industry.
As the National Farmers’ Union has said, this is a once in 40 years opportunity. It has been accused by free marketers of being protectionist with its defence of food standards, especially in relation to a potential US trade deal. It would reply that it is looking for a level playing field – and already has won over a million signatures from the public for its petition calling on the government to put into law rules that would prevent food being imported to the UK which is produced in ways that would be illegal here.
It also wants a pause in the legislative process to help manage volatility and risk, because of the lack of clarity around the outcome of trade deals, Brexit talks and the lasting effects of COVID. Yes, this is about much more than chlorinated chicken.
The debate is heating up, and this week the new boss of Waitrose James Bailey also urged the government to protect food standards in post-Brexit trade deals, saying any regression from current standards in the UK would be an unacceptable backwards step and pledged that his supermarkets would not sell any products that did not meet its own standards.
So what about the eating-out market? It has the opportunity to have its voice heard too, not just to represent its customers as it tries to reassure and welcome them back into the nation’s restaurants and pubs, but also to ensure that the quality food that it relies on will be available not just now but down the road. It really is that important.
With well over 30 years of experience in the sector, Peter brings his unrivalled experience and expertise to our data, providing analysis of trends and issues that no others can match. In this time, he has launched and run a host of industry magazines, journals and events, including M&C Report, the Retailers’ Retailer Awards and Peach Factory, which became part of the CGA family in 2013. Peter created CGA data services including the Coffer Peach Business Tracker and BrandTrack, and is the leading commentator on the UK’s eating and drinking out market, speaking regularly at events at home and internationally.