Has coronavirus corrupted Britain’s food supply chain?

Food Spark looks at how panic buying has impacted the country’s supply chains and whether it could halt product innovation and supermarket diversity

27 March 2020
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Everyone from our family members to our supermarket managers are telling us that there’s no issue with food supply chains amid the coronavirus pandemic. But during a crisis that is literally unprecedented, how can we be so sure? One thing we can be certain about is that panic buying has led to short-term supply issues, as everything from tinned goods to fresh meat has been stockpiled out of fear.

But should we see the empty supermarket shelves as a sign of deeper problems within our industry, or just a temporary panicked reaction to coronavirus that’s easily solved? Most experts believe that the food industry, from suppliers to retailers, have managed well given the circumstances and predict a strong outlook for the months ahead.

Put simply, given the gravity of the situation, there is at least some food left on the shelves. And according to key industry heads, that’s a sign that our supply chains are in relatively good working order. “Personally I don’t feel you can ever be prepared for a crisis on this scale,” Marukh Akhtar, founder of the Atithi restaurant in London, tells Food Spark. “But I believe the food supply chain is coping and rectified itself with demand, as we haven't had any restriction or chronic shortages.”

And the consensus from those at the top is that panic buying will cease relatively soon, when customers come around to the idea that they aren’t going to go hungry. James Butcher, CEO of supply engagement consultancy S4RB, is one industry name who predicts that a trend for shoppers “starting to shop more sensibly” is just around the corner.

That said, some food supplies will inevitably run dry. “Deluxe items and specialist options” will be harder to find, says Butcher. As will products sold in smaller batches, “because manufacturers will focus on the products that can be manufactured most efficiently at volume and reduce changeover times to maximum output.” 

Delays are also far more likely for products imported from abroad due to the obvious complications with import and coronavirus, due to the geographical extensions of those supply chains.

Consumer insight from coronavirus 

Insights can already be gained about how British shoppers react and prioritise in a crisis. The main insight gained so far by looking at the products left on supermarket shelves is that the essential items shoppers would have brought in the 1950s are much the same as the essentials shoppers are buying now.

milk bread eggs
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“Staples such as bread and milk have sold out, but the free-from aisles have not,” says Butcher. “Our local store still had free-from bread and rolls and the milk alternatives of soya milk and coconut milk were still there. In short, consumers are not that desperate.”  

He adds: “I am unsure whether this means there is opportunity to educate suppliers and sell more of these products, or whether this is an indication that a market chased by many retailers and brands is close to saturation.” 

This trend for traditional purchases could be a sign that the public are kidding themselves when it comes to their vegan and eco-friendly credentials. “Given the non-stop media coverage, massive retail investment and boom in brands within the plant-based arena over the last year, you'd have been forgiven for thinking 50% of the population had switched to a veg-based diet. And yet it's these products that are very much left standing on shelves as the meat fixtures on either side were stripped bare. The same goes for free-from category v.s bakery/core,” says Scott Dixon, founder of food producers The Flava People. 

Then there’s the fear that consumers stockpiling the basics such as bread and milk could halt innovation and supermarket diversity by putting small and independent producers at risk. “As retailers simplify their supply chains there is a chance that startups and more niche producers may lose their listings,” asserts Grace Taiwo of the vegan ice cream company Ruby and Grace London. “Brand owners are having to delay new product launches and have to bear the associated costs.” 

Creativity may also be stifled for mainstream producers as well as smaller ones. “Manufacturers need to think more about which of their products are best to provide at this time. Those products that are most efficient to produce, and those with the most ‘staple’ ingredients will have the most robust supply chain,” according to Butcher from S4RB. 

Still, there is hope that a period of change and growth will follow the virus. Butcher, for one, predicts a new trend for “appropriateness” could see manufacturers producing more foodstuffs in individual packets, rather than multi-packs.  

Other key takeaways from this period of uncertainty are likely to include more collaborations between retail and foodservice, so both industries can lean on each other more in times of need, better planning ahead for crises, and a stronger understanding of supply chains across the industry. 

And whenever the isolation period comes to an end, it’s likely that new product development will return on a stronger footing than it has been in years, given that key industry figures will have had an extended period for reflection, away from their offices, in their homes and kitchens.

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