Analysis: MPs on the EFRA committee are exposing the weak spots in the food chain

The food supply chain is being scrutinised by MPs to try and identify the weak spots and come up with ways to make it more resilient.

Processing plants have struggled with staffing, supermarket shelves have been empty, and millions of vulnerable people still can’t get the food they need.

The EFRA select committee, chaired by Neil Parish MP, has been carrying out an inquiry into how disruptions in the food supply chain are being managed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Parliament is still operating, but it has introduced social distancing measures and committees are being run via videoconferencing software.

The EFRA committee has heard from industry groups including the Food & Drink Federation, the British Meat Processors’ Association, and charities that support the most vulnerable, including the Trussell Trust, that supports a network of 1,250 food banks.

Vulnerable people

It is clear vulnerable people have struggled to get the food they need in the past two months. This is either because they simply don’t have the money to buy food, or they have been told to stay indoors but can’t get an online delivery slot due.

On 15 May, Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust told the inquiry the impact of the pandemic was “instantaneous and profound”.

“We analysed our data for the last two weeks of March, compared to the same period of time last year, and we identified that there was an 81% increase in demand and, quite alarmingly, a 122% increase in the number of children receiving food through our food banks.

“What this told us is that the number of families with children who were coming to us had doubled from its normal level, so we were definitely seeing a disproportionately high number of children.”

Last year 1.6 million food parcels were given out at food banks. Revie said 94% of people who came to a food bank had a household income of less than £50 per week after rent and 83% of food bank users were benefits claimants, so the primary reason for claiming was a straightforward lack of cash. In recent week this had been compounded by school closures, meaning children could no longer get free school meals.

Lindsay Boswell is chief executive of FareShare, which redistributes food from the supply chain that would otherwise go to waste to charities. Boswell told the committee that when stockpiling began in March and supermarket shelves were cleared, “our supply chain was cut off at the knees”. He said there had been some success getting food that should have gone to restaurants and pubs to people in need.

Other issues raised during the inquiry were problems among disabled and ill people in getting supermarket delivery slots, and among over-70s who do not use the internet. There is an “absence of responsibility” within Government for hunger, said Ian Wright from the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), who called for a “Minister for the Hungry”.

Processing plants

The problems experienced by food manufacturing businesses, including poultry processing sites, was laid bare in an evidence session.

EFRA committee member Geraint Davies MP, asked about the risk to people who work in food processing plants, and whether businesses were doing enough to protect staff. In Northern Ireland, one member of staff at Moy Park’s Dungannon plant has died of COVID-19, and there has been a separate walk-out among workers, concerned about social distancing.

“When you look at the ONS, deaths in plant processing is 1.7% of deaths compared to 0.3% of workers,” said Davies. “In other words, you’re six times more likely to die [of COVID-19]on a processing line [than in other jobs].”

Wright, of the FDF told the inquiry food manufacturers had had move very quickly and to “learn by doing”.

“There was a lot of work done in that first week and Public Health England (PHE) was extensively consulted on this. PHE has taken a lead on guidance on factory configuration,” said Wright, describing the sheer scale of the changes required in recent weeks.

“It’s been about entrances to factories, taking out keypads, and replacing them with cards, so the minimum amount of physical contact. Similarly, we’ve had to reconfigure cafeterias, wash-up areas, showers, changing rooms, and smoking areas. And we’ve had a big issue with how people get to work, because there is not a lot of public transport for areas where there are food factories, which are often on the edge of towns.”

Wright said the number of reported deaths among food manufacture workers was quite small. “Given we have 500,000 people going to work seven days a week for eight weeks, that is quite encouraging that we have not seen major infection rates, although we have seen a couple of relative hot spots.”

However, he said the system of testing people for coronavirus was frustratingly slow, contributing to staffing problems. “We’ve had 10 days [wait]as a relatively regular occurrence in some geographical locations.”

Redirecting food

One of the biggest issues in the past few weeks has been the problems with trying to redirect food destined for the foodservice market into the retail market where it is needed. Wright said this situation had eased significantly in the past three to four weeks, and he praised the daily calls with Defra on the Food Resilience Forum. “The level of engagement with secretary of state, compared with other government departments, is first rate.”

Parish noted that Wright was often an outspoken critic of government, so his praise carried weight. “You don’t pass out bouquets of flowers unless necesssary,” he said.

Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) told the inquiry it was important that the Government treat the food supply chain like a “recovering patient” when the coronavirus crisis is over.

Immigration bill

Several witnesses said they were surprised the government had not changed its plans for restricting immigration after 1 January, given the importance of food processing and the whole food supply chain and the reliance of those sectors on workers from abroad.

“We’ve been applauding people on the doorstep every Thursday night, we are then essentially shutting the door to thousands of those – it seems rather odd,” said James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, which represents food and drink wholesalers that supply foodservice businesses.

Wright also said it was “surprising” that given the lessons of the last eight to nine weeks that “the Immigration Bill is back in Parliament unchanged given what we’ve learnt” about the people working in food processing and on farms.

The public’s views

The EFRA Committee received over 5,500 responses to its survey on food supply during COVID-19. Here’s what some respondents said:

  • There is some appreciation that the food supply chain is adapting to the crisis. “I think the supermarkets have done a good job responding to an unprecedented and difficult situation.”
  • Most people have found it difficult to get the food they need in shops and supermarkets, particularly dry and tinned goods. “I don’t think there was any helpful guidance in respect of the likely effect of the lockdown on food supplies. There was a sudden flurry of news reports about people buying loo roll and pasta like it was going out of fashion, which scared us.”
  • Almost a third of people said they had bought more food than usual since February. “Whilst you try to shop responsibily, when you see items flying off the shelves you can’t help buying additional items yourself before it runs out.”
  • More than half of people had ordered food to be delivered, but 83% had found it difficult to get what they needed. “It feels very much that remote communities have been forgotten during the pandemic. We live in a small rural community where only one supermarket delivers to the area, and only to a central location, not to people’s homes. Since lockdown, the delivery slots have been reduced, meaning it is almost impossible to book a slot.”
  • A third of people had tried to register with a supermarket and/or online grocery service as a vulnerable customer. 70% of them rated the efforts made by supermarkets and online grocery services as somewhat or very unhelpful.
  • Lots of people suggested that the definitions of ‘vulnerable’ customers were not inclusive enough. “There is very little consideration for mental health sufferers, including autism and other spectrum disorders. The ‘very vulnerable’ list is almost exclusively for physical health.”

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