News
11th May

2020

TFA Blog – #07 – Food Retailers Need to Be Sure of Their Moral Compass for Such a Time As This

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 30 April 2020.

 

In what seems like a blink of an eye, a threat so small that is to be invisible to the naked eye, has literally turned our world upside down.  There is no walk of life or sector of society that has not been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the necessary restrictions that have been put in place by the Government to halt its deadly spread.  The speed and severity of the impact on all our lives should flag a concern about our resilience as a society and no more so when it comes to the food that we eat.

The shutdown of the food service and hospitality sector literally overnight, has landed a sledgehammer on the businesses of many farmers and food processors.  The dairy sector has been at the forefront of farmers that have been impacted.  The heart-breaking images of farmers having to drain their tanks of milk that they had just spent hours filling could not have failed to have elicited empathy from those watching.  Those feelings may also have turned to anger when having watched such waste, consumers are then limited to the milk that they can purchase through retail outlets, or even worse, are looking at empty shelves of milk and dairy products in some instances.

An unintended consequence of the Government’s restrictions is to have handed the monopoly on getting food to consumers to retailers.  At the same time, the Government has suspended the operation of the normal rules of competition law that would usually prevent retailers from working together to supply the market.  The Government is rightly concerned to ensure that consumers have access to the food they need at this critical time for our nation.  Having been handed the privilege of being the only conduit through which our citizens will be fed over the next weeks and months, retailers have a responsibility to ensure that they are acting in the best interests of the whole of the supply chain.

Things have not gone well to date with at least two of the major retailers stocking Polish beef mince and others offering New Zealand lamb to their shoppers.  It is understood that contracts for New Zealand lamb would have been agreed in deals done much earlier in the year.  However, the debacle over Polish mince was a real slap in the face to our beef farmers, who are seeing prices tumble as a result of what they are being told is lower demand for cuts and joints of meat, when in fact consumers are often reporting a lack of availability of these products on supermarket shelves.  It seems that the supermarket buying systems have not caught up with the existential threat that has overtaken us all.  In more recent times, it has been pleasing to see Morrisons step up to the challenge and is now promoting a wider range of meat products sourced domestically.

The loss of food service outlets through the closure of restaurants, catering and many takeaway establishments, has not diminished food demand.  It has merely transferred it to retail.  The challenges in shifting product away from food service into retail are not small but we do need to see a greater degree of effort to get this sorted.  For example, the only thing that should be on the agenda of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board at the present time is securing routes to market for this produce.

In these unprecedented days, if food retailers are not prepared to act in responsible ways for the benefit of the whole of the supply chain, the Government needs to step in to require them to do more to source British products and to work with the wider industry to shift more produce through retail where it was previously destined for food service.

At some point this crisis will be over.  We may well enter a period of recession.  Food service, restaurants and the hospitality sector may not bounce back to pre-crisis levels very quickly, but people still need to be fed.  Animals continue to need looking after, cows continue to need to be milked and crops cannot be left to rot in the ground.  Farmers are unable to access much of the funding made available by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and certainly not in a position to furlough their staff.  Unless the Government steps in with a  bespoke package of support and works to ensure that retailers are providing a fair deal to those upstream in the supply chain, our capacity for long-term food security will be greatly diminished.

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