The Future

COVID-19: How UK Food Production Is Adapting

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on food industries worldwide, causing the closure of businesses, slowing factory outputs and hampering supply chains, I’ve decided to look into what’s going on in my country, the UK. I’ve investigated why certain food items are harder to come by, and how UK producers are showing their resilience in light of these hardships.

Disrupted Food Chains

In March, urged by the government to control the spread of COVID-19, the UK saw most of its foodservice sector – restaurants, cafés, schools and hotels – close their doors, unsure of when they would open them again. Virtually overnight, demand for the foodservice dropped a staggering 80%,1 causing what has been described as a ‘tsunami’ of consumer demand diverted from the foodservice sector to supermarkets and grocery stores.2

With the UK population unable to buy meals out, it’s estimated that 500 million more meals will be eaten at home per week than would usually.3 This seismic shift in consumer behaviour is already having diverse and far-reaching impacts on many food producers across the nation, with wholesale food suppliers being hit the worst. Below are three food sectors experiencing the brunt of COVID-19’s impact:

Quarantine Baking & Flour Shortages

In the lead up to nationwide lockdown, one of the first products to disappear off supermarket shelves was flour, with the British public turning to baking as their go-to isolation hobby. Compared to March last year, flour sales increased by an astonishing 92%.4 This baking revival, alongside a climbing demand for flour, has left retail suppliers working at maximum capacity to replenish supermarket stocks.

There’s enough flour to go around

But the fact that flour is hard to come by doesn’t mean there’s not enough around. Actually, the UK is entirely self-sufficient when it comes to flour, producing some 90,000 tonnes each week. Normally, however, of this total just 4% is sold in supermarkets, leaving a whopping 96% snapped up by commercial bakeries and food manufacturers.5

Herein lies the problem: The flour sold to bakeries and manufacturers is delivered in large, industrial 16-25kg sacks, which even the most ardent home baker would shy away from. With such a small fraction of flour being sold to retailers, most millers aren’t equipped with the facilities needed to pack flour into the 1kg bags you’d find in supermarkets.6 As more of the nation’s food businesses close, many millers are rethinking their operations to adapt to new consumer demands – and repackaging products that were destined for other markets will be pivotal in solving this issue.

Meat Industry Disruptions

Another recent coronavirus casualty is the meat industry. With its main customer base – the foodservice sector – having closed up shop, many processors are being left with a backlog of stock and nowhere to send it. Step into a supermarket, however, and a completely different picture emerges. Walking down the meat aisle, the shelves are bare of products such as chicken, sliced meats and beef mince. Other items, however, like steak and roast joints, aren’t being touched.7

The key factor in this is that since lockdown, many households are making pragmatic, economical choices when it comes to what they buy – leaving luxury cuts like steak and roast joints off the menu. The figures speak for themselves: last month, beef mince sales rose by 45%, coming to make up 60% of all beef products sold in the UK.8

Wasted Meat

While this may seem like an inadvertent win for beef producers, these novel buying habits are upending what’s called the ‘carcass balance’. With only some cuts being bought by retailers and consumers, farmers are earning less for the whole carcass of an animal, degrading beef production from an economic, ethical and sustainable standpoint. This, coupled with isolation-related reduced staffing levels and a slowed down production line due to social distancing is severely disrupting supply chains.9

As we’ve also seen with flour, packaging requirements vary hugely depending on whether the food is meant for hospitality or the supermarket shelf. Many meat suppliers do not have the machinery or packaging necessary to create individually vacuum packed, nutritionally labelled cuts that the retail sector requires.10

Got Milk?

The dairy industry isn’t immune to the disruption caused by COVID-19 either. Farmers across the UK are being forced to pour away what’s been estimated at a million litres of milk every day.1 Meanwhile, dairy products are sold out in shops, following a 20% surge in consumer demand.11 

What’s the cause of this paradox? The foodservice sector makes up roughly 15% of the dairy market, which is a significant proportion when you break it down.12 Just think about takeaway coffee – on average, nearly a billion servings of latte are bought across the UK each year.13 Without this demand, farmers who would normally supply businesses are scrambling to redirect their produce to shops.

And, unfortunately, as we’re seeing with beef and flour, converting wholesale dairy into supermarket standard products is presenting logistical and packaging nightmares for processors. It would take a huge amount of resources, time and capital to install, for example, the equipment needed to bottle up milk which would ordinarily arrive in bulk bags to food manufacturers, cafes and restaurants.14Alongside the fact that many retailers typically buy from a single supplier, accessing retail markets is proving increasingly challenging.15

Adapting Through Innovative Operations

Faced with a dwindling foodservice sector and routes to retail obstructed, producers are showing they are nothing if not resilient, adapting their business strategies to maintain sales.

Changing Production Operations

Retail flour millers have started ramping up production, hiring enough staff to transform production and packing lines into a 24/7 operation, significantly increasing their output to shops.16 In meat and dairy industries, a growing number of suppliers are gaining direct access to consumers by embracing digital technologies; rapidly launching websites for their products and using social media platforms, online marketplaces and direct-to-home ordering systems to ensure sales.

Helpful Apps & Websites

Third-party websites such as Big Barn, Find Me a Milkman, Neighbour Food and the Farmers Weekly Map are also proving to be vital resources, helping to connect consumers with local UK suppliers, offering direct sales with contact-free delivery to the public and cutting out the supermarket middleman.17

Digital initiatives like these are nothing short of a lifeline for farmers, helping shift stock, reduce food waste and prevent closures. But this isn’t just good news for producers – these emerging services are also working to mitigate the spread of coronavirus by reducing the number of people visiting busy supermarkets, while also providing safer access to food for more vulnerable members of the public.

Global Response

And it’s not just the UK food industries that are having to adapt to this crisis – inventive solutions are springing up around the world to connect producers with consumers: In Norway, farmers are using Facebook groups to sell their produce directly; across the United States, Netherlands and elsewhere, creative growers are offering drive-ins for consumers to buy goods.18 As time goes on, more UK produces may start to adopt creative responses like these.

How is your country adapting its food system to the ongoing coronavirus crisis? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. McKevitt for Kantar Worldpanel (2020).‘Record Grocery Sales as Shoppers Prepare for Lockdown’. Accessed on 9th April 2020.
  2. Morton for BBC News (2020). ‘Coronavirus: Flour Mills Working ‘Round the Clock’ to Meet Demand’. Accessed on 10th April 2020.
  3. Farming UK (2020). ‘Retailers Face Flour Shortages Due to Rise in Home Baking’. Accessed on 9th April 2020.
  4. Hyslop for Bakery and Snacks (2020). ‘UK millers Working Around the Clock to Address Flour Shortage’. Accessed on 10th April 2020.
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  6. Allen for New Food Magazine (2020). ‘How Covid-19 is Affecting Livestock Prices’. Accessed on 8th April 2020.
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  9. Farming UK (2020). ‘Coronavirus: Farmers Forced to Dump Thousands of Litres of Milk’. Accessed on 8th April 2020.
  10. Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (2020). ‘Just How Much Fresh Milk Goes to Foodservice?’. Accessed on 10th April 2020.
  11. Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (2020). ‘Covid-19 Special: What’s Happened to Dairy Markets and Consumption?’. Accessed on 8th April 2020.
  12. National Farmers Union (2020). ‘Coronavirus: Marketing Food Products Directly to Consumers’. Accessed on 10th April 2020.
  13. Halleron for Agriland.com (2020). ‘How Might Covid-19 Impact on Dairy and Red Meat Sectors?’. Accessed on 8th April 2020.
  14. Mathers for the Independent (2020). ‘Explained: Why it’s so Hard to Find Flour in the Shops Right Now’. Accessed on April 9th 2020.
  15. Hird for Sustainweb.com (2020). ‘Five Ways to Support Our Farmers in the Time of Covid-19’. Accessed on 10th April 2020.
  16. Horti Daily (2020). ‘Overview: Global Impact of Coronavirus on Fresh Produce Markets’. Accessed on 14th April 2020.
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