From farmers to supermarket chiefs to frontline workers, this is the inside story of the food supply chain and Covid-19. Were we prepared for the storm – and what happens next?
For Kim McMaster the crisis began on 21 March. Each Saturday night she visits the vast Tesco Extra on Sheffield’s Savile Street to collect surplus food on behalf of the Norfolk Park Tenants and Residents Association. It’s then redistributed to about 100 people in need through a community pantry scheme run out of a local church. “Normally there will be eight to 10 trays waiting for us,” she says. “Fresh fruit, veg, eggs, bread, a full mix.” That Saturday there were no fresh vegetables at all. There really wasn’t much of anything. “There were just two trays. The manager was very upset. He said the shop had been stripped bare so there wasn’t any surplus.”
In London, at the Deptford headquarters of FareShare, the charity which redistributes food from throughout the supply chain that would otherwise go to waste, the story was becoming horribly familiar. As well as receiving deliveries direct from supermarkets and producers into their warehouses, FareShare has 7,000 affiliated charities across the country – food banks, community kitchens and the like – which, as with the Norfolk Park group, collect surplus direct from individual branches. But those supermarkets suddenly had nothing to give. “Almost overnight these charities had their supply cut off at the knees,” says the chief executive, Lindsay Boswell. “There was nothing we could do.”
It is one acute story from the frontline of the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. We have all experienced the crisis in different ways. For some it has been the tedium of enforced idleness; for others, the life-changing trauma of loved ones lost to the disease. The one universal has been the daily drudge of keeping ourselves and our families fed, as a complex food supply chain creaked, wobbled and at times seemed at risk of collapse.
We have queued outside supermarkets. We have scanned bare shelves. We have refreshed online shopping sites repeatedly until our fingers have cramped. For those charged with keeping those shelves stocked it has been a challenge without precedent; one that appears to have been met. The question is, for how long?
Many in the UK’s food industry admit the storm crept up on them. “In early February I’d just finished a meeting with Chris Kebbell, the counsellor for agriculture at the New Zealand High Commission,” says Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the sector’s manufacturers. “He said: ‘So what are you going to do to prepare for quarantine?’ I asked him, what do you mean? He said: ‘Something big is coming.’”
Over at Sainsbury’s Patrick Miller, who heads the 50-strong team responsible for the company’s non-fresh goods supply chain, had noticed a change. “It was February half term. We recognised a move in customer behaviour. They were topping up on things like rice and pasta, products they could tuck away in cupboards.”
On 2 March Bruno Monteyne, a former Tesco executive turned business analyst with global investment firm Alliance Bernstein, published a startling newsletter predicting panic buying, empty shelves and even food riots, with the army deployed to protect stores. “Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves),” he wrote, “but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.”
The analysis, which many in the food retail sector admit was their first hint of what was to come, was based on war gaming that Tesco had done back around 2010. “There were training days with all the senior people,” Monteyne says now. “The objective was to think our way through a scenario exactly like the one we have now.”
A similar exercise was repeated just four years ago by Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis. They imagined what would happen if they had to shut down the head office. “At the time people said it was a bit ridiculous and extreme,” Lewis said recently.
And then it hit. Shelves would clear early in the day and stay that way. Sainsbury’s saw pasta sales rise by 240% and those of UHT milk by 110%. Tesco recorded a doubling in the sale of both tinned tomatoes and beans. “We were seeing over multiple days what we would expect to see over the one peak day in the run-up to Christmas,” says Patrick Miller at Sainsbury’s. “But we have three to six months to prepare for Christmas.”
Newspapers and websites filled with reports of panic buying, of people squabbling over packs of toilet roll, of the elderly and infirm failing to fight their way to what they needed; crucially, of exhausted NHS workers coming off shift and being unable to buy food for their families. “It wasn’t panic buying,” says Wright. “It was perfectly logical buying.” People knew that something big really was coming.
It arrived on 16 March. In a Downing Street press conference the prime minister called on us all to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues”. Just over 30% of calories are consumed outside the home in the UK: in restaurants, cafes and hotels. The hospitality sector had been hung out to dry. They had been given no legal obligation to close, but their customers had been told to stay away. It also meant that the major food retailers, who supply around 65% of our food, would now need to pick up an enormous amount of slack. They would have to up their stock by well over 40%. At that level of demand, there wasn’t any need for panic buying to clear shelves.
Families with school-age kids were adding another five meals a week. Parents who picked up lunch at work now needed to feed themselves at home too. “One thing we did was simplify our ranges,” Miller says. “We have 41 different pasta products under our own label at Sainsbury’s. We reduced that to just seven.” Coca-Cola reduced their range from 86 products to 12.
At the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Chris Tyas, a former executive from Nestlé, was brought in to head the Food Resilience Industry Forum. It was a clear sign that the government was, in the words of Tim Lang, veteran professor of food policy at City University, going to “leave it to Tesco”. Feeding the nation was now a matter for the retailers.
From 26 March, every day at 8am the forum held a phone conference involving up to 120 people from the industry (it now meets twice weekly). Through the forum, the major retailers lobbied government to relax competition law, so the likes of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons could agree to the same limits on how many packets of pasta or rolls of toilet paper each customer could buy. Delivery hours for trucks were relaxed, so they could keep restocking supermarkets after hours.
Later, the forum was called upon to sort one major issue: lack of supply into the UK’s vital convenience stores. “Massive buying swept into our sector about five to seven days after it reached the supermarkets,” says James Lowman of the Association of Convenience Stores. And, if anything, trade was up even more than in the supermarkets. “We had the same number of customers but they had gone from spending around £9 each visit to over £16.”
There are more than 45,000 convenience stores on the UK mainland and they were all now finding it tough to get stock. “Less was going to the wholesalers who supply them because it was going to the supermarkets,” says Lowman. “That’s partly market forces. You don’t piss off your biggest customers.
“It has been exhausting for our members. They’ve traded well but they’ve incurred extra costs and are wrung out. And they’ve done so at great personal risk.” Indeed. An analysis by the Office for National Statistics found that people in food and hospitality trades were at much higher than average risk of dying from Covid-19.
At the supermarkets, workers were having a tough time. On 4 June, the Grocer reported analysts Shepper found that staff in 26% of 500 supermarkets they surveyed had been abused by customers. Some were “behaving aggressively” and “shouting in frustration”.
Back at FareShare, Lindsay Boswell found that the closure of the hospitality sector was a temporary godsend. “Very quickly we were being offered enormous amounts of food from that supply chain,” he says. “It went into our warehouses and we redirected our charities there.” They needed it because, as the economy stuttered to a halt, many workers, and especially the self-employed and those dependent on the gig economy, found themselves in dire straits.
Kim McMaster, coordinator of the FareShare scheme for the Norfolk Park Tenants and Residents Association, Sheffield: ‘We went from supporting 100 people to supporting 400.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer
In Sheffield, McMaster switched from a pantry model to delivering food packages door to door. “We went from supporting 100 people to supporting 400,” she says. It was a similar story in London. “A charity in central London which used to provide two meals a week for 70 people is now running a daily service for 300 people,” says Boswell. Some of that was down to food charities closing down their operations. But much of it was simple demand. As Boswell says: “In April FareShare provided food for 11.6 million meals. That’s three times more than we’d ever done before.”
The massive need hadn’t gone unnoticed by the supermarkets. “Asda called me quickly and gave us £500,000 and said there’s another £2m to follow,” says Boswell. “Then Tesco gave us £5m-worth of food and Sainsbury’s followed that with the pledge of £1m a month to help with the cost of transporting it around the country.” It sounds like a generous offer. However, it’s worth noting that, despite the costs the major retailers were incurring as a result of taking on extra staff and introducing social distancing measures, business analysts are still forecasting that they will see a one-off 8% increase in profits.
At Agriculture House, the headquarters of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) just south of Coventry, Boris Johnson’s 16 March press conference was received with mounting anxiety. “I watched it in my office with a number of colleagues,” says Philip Hambling, the NFU’s head of food and farming. “We immediately knew there was going to be an impact for some of our members because of the closure of the hospitality sector. The problem was judging exactly the size and shape of it, because nothing like this had ever happened before.”
If there was a vertical relationship between farmers and retailers, so that food products simply went to where they were required, everything would have been fine. But it doesn’t work like that. “There are many dairy farmers who supply processors, who in turn only supply cafes and restaurants rather than retailers,” Hambling says. “They had the door slammed in their face.” Even though there was increased demand from those retailers, there were dairy farmers who were forced to pour milk away, and even consider culling cows.
“We had a similar problem with poultry. We had three to four million chickens that had been raised for the hospitality sector. They have a different spec to those sold in supermarkets.” Those chickens had nowhere to go. Hambling and his team had to find a home for them. Some were redirected to supermarkets. Others went into storage. “But there are many chicken sheds that haven’t been restocked. Production is down around 7-10% and I don’t expect it to recover for two to three years.”
The most complex issue was beef. As one leading figure in the British meat processing industry put it: “We all started eating like bloody students and just buying mince.” Mince sales went up by 45% in the month to the end of March. This left cold stores groaning with what’s called hindquarter, which supplies the premium steaks – the sirloins, rumps and rib eyes which are mostly consumed in restaurants. “We had to embark on a bit of serious engagement with the retail sector to sort that one,” Hambling says. It led to some very good deals on prime steaks across the supermarkets.
Demand for eggs rose over 30% but there was both a shortage of supply and a packaging problem. Those for the hospitality sector come in trays of a couple of dozen or more. Egg cartons for domestic use are mostly made by three European manufacturers and one of them, in Denmark, closed. Likewise, there was lots of flour but the vast majority of it was packaged in 15kg sacks for bakeries. It was impossible to simply up production of smaller packs for domestic use. “Potatoes are also still massively affected,” Hambling says. “Because of the closure of outlets selling chips. We have a lot of potatoes looking for somewhere to go.”
On 22 March, the government announced that 1.5 million people identified as clinically vulnerable – those undergoing chemotherapy, for example – had to go into the most severe lockdown. Earlier in the month the health secretary, Matt Hancock, glibly announced on BBC One’s Question Time that those self-isolating at home could get a supermarket delivery. This massively overestimated the capacity of online food retail which at that point accounted for just 7% of grocery sales.
Physical distancing measures at a greengrocers in East Lothian, Scotland. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
According to Christopher Poad, managing director of Tesco’s online business, traffic to their website exploded. “We had an eightfold increase in the number of unique visitors.” They were then fulfilling 650,000 slots a week. That would eventually rise to 1.3 million, by increasing the number of pickers in their stores and warehouses from 23,000 to 35,000 and the number of drivers from 12,000 to 16,000. “In all, across the sector there are around 3 million slots a week but there is clearly more demand than that.” Online is now 11.5% of all sales.
The government also announced that it would be sending the most vulnerable a weekly food package, passing the bulk of the heavy lifting to the food service companies, Brakes and Bidfood. Many recipients posted pictures on social media of what they had received. A lot expressed gratitude for the government’s intervention. However, they also questioned the contents. While there was a fair amount of fresh fruit, the packs were heavy with simple carbs – white bread, white pasta – and low in protein. What protein there was seemingly came from an enormous consignment of Fray Bentos chicken meatballs.
Likewise in Bristol, Peter Overton, a clearly exasperated primary school headteacher, tweeted a picture of the dismal offering for pupils on free school meals for a week: alongside a piece of fruit a day, there were biscuits, crisps, a loaf of cheap sliced bread and a block of fat specifically marked as for baking only. “The school pays the contractor £11 for this,” wrote Overton. “Shameful!”
He was not the only one with doubts. On 1 April, a letter signed by leading academics was sent to both Defra and Public Health England (PHE) calling on them to establish an expert committee to oversee nutrition during the crisis. “It would have made sure that the 1.5 million people who received food parcels weren’t sent the crap that arrived,” says Prof Tim Lang, the letter’s author. “And that school meals were similarly audited.” Defra replied on 28 April saying nutrition was a matter for Public Health England. Two weeks later PHE replied, saying the matters raised were “for ministers”. They had at least been consistent: both had said the nutritional health of the nation wasn’t their problem.
Now, here we are in late June, with the lockdown easing. Save for a few gaps, such as flour and yeast, the shelves are mostly full again. “To some degree it’s an impressive achievement to have got it all back so quickly,” says Wright. Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium agrees. “We were worried about fresh produce as we are dependent on much of that coming from Spain, which had its own problems, but we didn’t see any drop off.”
Lang, who published a major book on Britain’s fragile food security just as lockdown started, is less convinced. “My critics have said we were wrong, there was no mass starvation. It was messy but we got it sorted. Well yes, but that’s because it’s been an extraordinary bonanza for food retail.” And it worked, he says, because “Europe fed us”. Boswell has his own concerns. “My main message is please don’t think this crisis is over. I’m terrified of the long-term issues, of the number of people who are going to need the help of frontline charities for a while to come.”
Ah yes, the long term. In late April, the global business analysis group, IHS Markit, released a briefing on the state of the global food supply chain. It made for sobering reading. “With social distancing and food rotting in the fields and poor transport links, the most optimistic estimate is that the supply chain will shrink to 70-75% of capacity.” In other words, a quarter of the world’s food supply will simply disappear. There’s a shortage of workers. Ships are in the wrong place. Factories are closing down. Countries are limiting exports of key crops.
“It’s going to take very little before people start running out of food in the world’s poorest countries,” says Neil Murray, the paper’s lead author. “And then things could get very ugly.” It seems we have won the first food battle of 2020’s Covid-19 crisis. But the war may well have a very long way to run.