Comment: I’ve never seen anything like this in the egg industry

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

Never in our lifetime have we seen anything quite like it. Our own country, Europe, and indeed much of the world in the grip of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. At the time of writing this continues to spread, with governments putting in place measures to try and contain the spread of the virus which would be unheard of in normal circumstances. It’s a scary thought that up to 80% of a population could catch the virus at some point, and whilst in 4 out of 5 people the symptoms will be mild, to our elderly people and those with underlying health issues, this can be serious. Therefore, it is beholden on all of us to play our part in listening to and enacting government advice.

Sadly, the moment ‘potential shortage’ is mentioned, panic buying sweeps the country.  This is evident by the many scenes shown in the media of supermarket shelves devoid of staples, including eggs, and other products such as hand soap, toilet paper and painkillers. Most of this is being bought by panic buyers, many of whom may have nothing but good intentions to protect themselves and their families, but which has only exacerbated shortages and helped to deprive the most vulnerable of vital supplies.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP, has said that there is no shortage of food in the UK, but that there is an issue with supply and logistics – food and other products simply cannot make it from source or point of production at a fast enough rate to replenish the shelves. This will only get worse if people continue to irresponsibly stockpile these goods. Several supermarkets have implemented measures such as limiting the number of items customers can purchase and creating dedicated shopping hours for the elderly. Sadly, some people have reacted with abuse and threats of violence towards supermarket staff, which has resulted in retailers requesting police support, one of many factors that could stretch our public services during this difficult time.

At the beginning of March, leaked emails from a senior adviser at No 10 said that the country doesn’t need farmers. Tim Leunig, an economic adviser expressed the opinion that the UK could simply import the vast majority or indeed all its food, as countries like Singapore do. The UK Government seemed incredibly embarrassed by this and did everything they could to distance themselves from what was an absurdly inaccurate comment and was right to do so.

The Food and Drink Federation said UK food makers are relatively well-prepared to weather the storm, in no small part thanks to preparations already being made due to concerns over a no-deal Brexit, leading them to identify alternative supplies of ingredients. If the state of UK agriculture looked like what Mr Leunig wanted it to look like, non-existent, there would be a real crisis in terms of the nation’s food production, supply and getting it onto the plates of consumers.

Neil Parish MP, Chair of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, in response to the crisis recently said; “In these great moments of crisis, when we actually need food, there is no doubt that a home produced food is more important than ever”. As the Defra Secretary has rightly identified, the problem is one of logistics, not of food production. One could only imagine how much worse the scenes of panic in supermarkets would be if almost all raw ingredients and most food products had to be imported from abroad. The volume of shipping, transport, and storage would be on a scale never seen by this country, and even then, supply chains would struggle to satisfy consumer demand. One thing that should come out of this crisis, is a new understanding and appreciation for the country’s farmers, and everyone that works in food production and supply, as well as an appreciation for all our public sector employees, who have been and will continue to work incredibly hard to ensure the country does not grind to a halt and that families will never go hungry, in these trying times.

The BEIC will continue to update its members and the industry around developments for COVID-19, changes in the way Lion audits take place and provide advice on a range of issues that may impact the sector. We urge everyone to follow the UK Government advice around hygiene and containing the virus, and to remain vigilant. Stay safe.

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