What is the impact of COVID-19 on the food system of the UK?

A research team from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) led by Prof. Michael Winter OBE, will focus on the management of the disruptive social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on the UK’s food supply chain.

The research is being undertaken as part of the UKRI-ESRC’s open call for research and innovation ideas aimed at addressing and mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.

A New Consumer World View?

 

By Steve Guilbert

About this time last year, in amongst the usual ubiquitous year-end top ten lists and articles about trends we should be looking out for in 2020, were reports of an outbreak of a mysterious illness in a Chinese city.   As we entered the New Year and decade no-one could have predicted just how truly extraordinary, challenging and transformative 2020 would turn out to be.  This year will teach us many valuable lessons but surely in the top 10 of any 2020 takeaways is the maxim that predicting the future is a fool’s errand.

Yet as we draw near to another New Year, in the media and blogosphere predictions again proliferate about what we’ll be wearing, driving, reading, watching as well as eating and drinking in 2021 and beyond.[1]  Most are mildly diverting clickbait but some offer real industry insight about how habits and attitudes have changed over this past year, how likely these changes are to be permanent, and the extent to which they might now be considered, to use a much repeated phrase, the new normal.

A good example of the latter, that’s been recently published and picked-up by a number of news sites, is the Waitrose and Partners Food and Drink 2021 Report.  It’s short, concise, full of fascinating insight, and brimming with consumer survey data on what and how we buy, and our changed attitudes to food: where it comes from, how we cook it, and how important it is to our health and well-being.

 

Some Stats for Starters

Let’s have a few interesting stats for starters.  You’re probably familiar with the ‘mega-trend’ that is home pickling and preserving (searches on Waitrose.com for ‘pickling’ up 222%) but perhaps less so with the return of oxtail (sales up 258%) and the home working associated trend for slow-cooked meat.  Clams, cockles, mussels and oysters are reportedly back too with sales of British seafood up 200% over the last six months, while the popularity of Asian store cupboard essentials like Japanese Rice Vinegar (up 180%) and Chinese Rice Vinegar (up 194%) represents something of a new trend.  UK social media mentions of pulses are up an incredible 600% (although presumably from a fairly low base?), while the desire for barista quality coffee at home has seen a 64% increase in sales of ‘bean to cup’ coffee machines.[2] 

What factors can explain this ostensibly random assortment of individual trends?  The Waitrose and Partners report identifies a number key structural shifts in consumer attitudes and behaviour that have occurred over the course 2020.  The first of these concerns cooking.

 

Cooking

The pandemic, the report argues, has permanently changed our relationship with food, with cooking and eating assuming a more central and meaningful place in our lives.  This was found to be particularly the case for those working from home, three-quarters of which stated that cooking dinner provided the break between ‘working time’ and ‘home time’, in effect punctuating the day in a similar but more positive way to the commute.  63% of working-from-homers also reported that mealtimes have become more of an event, a sentiment shared by three-quarters of young professionals who found that the ritual of preparing something to eat had taken on an increased importance.  Moreover, we are apparently also more organised as a nation with 53% of us now carefully planning meals and writing shopping lists and 66% of us now more watchful of waste.

 

Shopping

Not surprisingly, another one of the fundamental ‘seismic’ shifts in consumer behaviour caused by COVID and highlighted in this report concerns how, where, and when we shop for food.   The pandemic, it confirms, caused an unprecedented surge in online food shopping, with a quarter of us buying food online for the first time and three quarters of us now doing at least some of our grocery shopping online (up from 61% a year ago).  As a result of this online surge Waitrose.com has trebled its size and now accounts for nearly 20% of the total business (up from 5% last year).

But it’s not just how, but how often we food shop that’s also changed, with many people rediscovering the benefits of the less frequent food shop.  57%, for example, reported food shopping once a week or fortnight in 2020 compared with 39% in 2016.  This year may also have witnessed some of the final nails in the coffin of cash with Waitrose reporting that it accounted for only 10% of in-store transactions during COVID (down from 22% pre-COVID).  With reduced fears of transmission risk use of cash may well bounce back to pre-COVID levels but many of the other significant shifts in shopping habits look likely to be more permanent with 60% of survey respondents saying the changes they made during COVID will stick long-term.

 

Attitudes to Food and Farming

If our behaviour has changed significantly, so has our attitude to food.  The pandemic has focused minds on the things that matter and we have, the report suggests, ‘a new appreciation for the food we buy and how we buy it’.  It found, for example, that 57% of us value food more now than we did pre-COVID.  As has been mentioned in some of our previous posts, one of the key things it seems we have come to value when it comes to food is familiarity, comfort and nostalgia, manifest in things like increased sales of traditional favourites and efforts to be more self-sufficient (four in ten of us, for example, grew our own food during the long lockdown), and less wasteful (seven in ten homeworkers sometimes ate last night’s leftovers for lunch).

We also seem to have an increased appreciation for the people who produce and supply our food.  70% of us now value the role of supermarket workers more than we did at the start of 2020, while 74% of people want to see more food businesses in the UK express their support for local British producers – although shoppers themselves seem a little less enthusiastic to buy local British produce directly with only 44% saying they’d consider subscribing to a service that sent fresh produce directly from farm to door.

 

Health and Well-being 

Nevertheless, the importance of ‘localness’, community and neighbourhood have all emerged as strong themes over the pandemic.  60% of those who got involved in their local communities over lockdown, for example, said they intend to carry on, a figure that rises to 70% among the 35-44 age group.

Even more local still, maintaining our own physical and mental wellbeing has, the report suggests, been paramount over the pandemic and led to a ‘permanent readjustment in many people’s psyches’.  53% of us, it claims, feel the pandemic has acted as a reset button in our busy lives.  60% of respondents, for example, have been trying harder to keep themselves physically heathy during the pandemic.  On waitrose.com portion size searches are up 57%, high fibre recipes 230%, high protein recipes 330%, and Mediterranean meal plans up a colossal 630%.

Of course, visitors to waitrose.com are a long way from being representative of the UK population as a whole, and while the research that informs this report was not undertaken exclusively with Waitrose shoppers it clearly should be read as an interesting portrait of a certain privileged demographic.  The picture it paints of ‘our’ changed food attitudes and behaviours and our experience of the pandemic could not contrast more shockingly with the picture painted by another recently published report from the Social Market Foundation, which finds that one in four children, 3 million in total, have faced some form of food deprivation in the six months following lockdown, and  that 16% of parents said that their children made do with smaller portions, had to skip meals or went a day without eating between March and September.

 

A New Consumer Worldview?

The Waitrose report confidently proclaims that from the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19 comes the ‘emergence of a new consumer worldview’.  Our daily rituals, and attitudes to supermarkets and the way we shop have all been fundamentally reshaped, it suggests, and what’s more, ‘these changes are here to stay’.

I’m not sure about the emergence of a new food ‘consumer’ worldview.  With the report’s references to localness, participation, community, health and well-being it sounds a lot like people are thinking and behaving more like the engaged and proactive food ‘citizen’ espoused by April Rinne of the World Economic Forum in a recent Forbes article, than it does the ‘passive, just-buy-this’ consumer.

Given the year we’ve had, and the uncertainly that still, at the time of writing, lies ahead in 2021, I’m not sure either that I’d be as confident in my predictions for the future.  For the food system, things will never quite be the same again for sure, but the scale and permanence of these changes still remains to be seen.  Predicting the future is a fool’s errand and none of us really knows what the long-term looks like.  What perhaps we can say, however, and to quote a sage member of our own Expert Panel, is that while we don’t know what the long-term looks like, ‘we know it’s closer than it used to be’!

 

[1]  See for example:

https://www.foodmatters.co.uk/podcasts/the-future-of-food-a-look-at-consumer-trends-with-wgsn/

https://www.bidfood.co.uk/podcast/trends/food-and-drink-trends-for-2021-social-trends/

https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/14778-what-well-be-eating-in-2021-according-to-robots

[2]  All sales figures are compared with the same period the previous year, unless otherwise stated.

The Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Fresh Food Supply Chain – A Summary

Assorted peppers on a supermarket shelf

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Research results from other projects on the impact of COVID are beginning to emerge and this month I am highlighting a paper led by some Exeter colleagues based in the Business School here at the University, Rebecca Mitchell and Roger Maull, working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Lincoln. The full paper The impact of COVID-19 on the UK fresh food supply chain can be viewed and downloaded at: https://arxiv.org/abs/2006.00279

The researchers reviewed secondary data on retail demand (using Kantar data) and conducted interviews with 23 organisations associated with the UK fruit and vegetable food supply market, as well as running four video workshops with 80 organisations representing 50% of the UK fresh produce community.   The three main questions are:

  1. What was the change in retail demand for fruit and vegetables resulting from COVID-19?
  2. What was the impact on UK suppliers of fruit and vegetables?
  3. What types of innovation are emerging within supermarket coordinated supply chains of fruit and vegetables?

 

Some headline findings are as follows (but do check out the paper for the full details):

Research Question 1: Change in Demand

  • The 12 weeks from 27th January 2020, compared to 2019, saw retail in the sector increase by 11% by value and 12% by volume.
  • In the 4 weeks following shut down of the food service sector, retail sales of the same lines increased by 14% by value and 13% by volume.
  • There was considerable variability across products. For example canned tomatoes, had an uplift by value relative to the same period in 2019 of 103% at the peak of w/e 15th March, and saw week-on-week uplift in sales volume exceed 22% for 3 weeks in a row. Over the 12-week period, the total volume of fresh vegetables sold was 11% higher than the same period in 2019, with carrots showing a 12% increase but broccoli having the same demand. 

Research Question 2: Impact on Suppliers

This section in the paper is quite short and I was left wanting more!  Here is a direct quotation indicating the importance of the analysis:

‘One of our interviewees, who source fresh produce internationally, reported that for the first 18 days of the epidemic, orders were running at 120% and then suddenly “dropped to zero”. They noted that their supermarket buyers had left the algorithms that control order replenishment to operate without human intervention, which resulted in supermarkets seeing increased waste as supply exceeded demand. Buyers then began to intervene, manually adjusting the previously automated orders. This had an enormous knock-on effect for the supplier, who ultimately decided not to trust the order pattern of their customer, to make adjustments based on experience and eventually “ran our own plan”. They noted that “whilst supermarket ordering systems are brilliant in normal phase, they didn’t compensate well for large variations emerging because of COVID-19”. The interviewee concluded that their waste bill was twice its normal level, and that profitability would be reduced accordingly. This was not an isolated example. An important issue for our supply chain partners was the “chaos” caused by this algorithmic ordering. Most large retailers use these algorithmic replenishment models and supermarket processes strictly control modifications to subsequent orders, but these huge weekly spikes led to a gross perturbation….’

Research Question 3: Innovation  

This issue is the leading motivation for these particular researchers. Again let me quote directly from the paper:

‘In some instances there was evidence that suppliers were able to adapt rapidly to changing market conditions – these were predominantly situations in which suppliers were already focused on the retail sector, and were primarily dealing with uplift in demand. Suppliers usually dealing with the service sector coped better in situations in which there were not significant capital assets (such as packaging equipment) required in order to enable them to switch product line (e.g. to create smaller volume packages to deliver to retail rather than wholesale) or channel (e.g. responding to increased demand from online retailers, or delivering direct to consumers via “veg boxes”). In situations where this was not possible the role of convening groups, representative bodies and levy boards has been visibly important. For example in early May, building on their open-access analysis of potato markets, AHDB launched “The Potato Portal” as a mechanism by which to connect potato growers with wholesale buyers (AHDB, 2020c).’

But overall they conclude that the system is stuck in a rigidity trap, unable to exploit more radical innovations such as more localised supply chains and industrial robotics.

Lockdown 2.0

Hand written 'Closed Sign' in shop window

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In the second national lockdown we saw food service and hospitality businesses restricted to takeaway only. The only option to ‘eat out’ was at outdoor street food markets, who could continue trading. A poll of 242 food business operators during the week of the announcement of the lockdown found support for the measures was divided (41% supported, 43% did not support, 16% undecided). In late October, business groups warned of the potentially devastating effects on hospitality and food service sector, emphasising the need for business aid and the prospect of a loss of 750,000 jobs. With bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants only able to offer takeaway, staff have been laid off and some hospitality workers are facing homelessness as a result. Although the extension of the furlough scheme has helped to retain staff in some cases, it may not be enough to keep businesses trading, for instance, where mandated closure and negative cash flow has caused a build-up of rent arrears.

Closure of hospitality businesses in lockdown 2 has also put pressure on suppliers and wholesalers serving the food service sector. Although schools, care homes and hospitals still need supplies, without food service customers, industry leaders warned that some wholesale businesses will become unsustainable. Strains on supply chains prompted reflections on the resilience of the food system and the ongoing pressures of the pandemic were found to be impacting some food exports, such as Scottish red meat and offal (which has fallen 8% according to levy board Quality Meat Scotland).

We have now heard that that the tiered system will return and I expect that the impacts of the second national lockdown will become clearer over the next month or so. November and December are of course a crucial trading period for many food businesses, and the altered system of restrictions will shape the strategies businesses can use to resume trading and recover.

 

Two National Lockdowns Compared

Like the first lockdown, it has been suggested there may be some benefits for local and independent food shops. Delivery of local food, through start-ups like Farmdrop, also look likely to continue. Garden centres staying open might also have supported speciality food, especially in the run up to Christmas. Research from Springboard, found that, 63% of people will spend more in local shops in the run up to Christmas 2020, while 36% will spend more on food compared to last year. We know some independent food businesses who made agile responses to increased demand for takeaways and home delivery benefitted during the first lockdown. But we heard from our Expert Panel this month that with larger and global businesses now well prepared for delivery and click and collect, competition will be higher. The pressures of lockdown 2 on independents may be harsher.

Similar, although not identical, to the first lockdown, there was a dash to stock-up ahead of the November lockdown; queues and shortages of some products were reported. However, this time the rush was not just to purchase food to eat at home, but to restaurants, and pubs, and for non-food retail shopping.  High-street footfall was up, at least in post-Covid terms (although it was still 28% down compared with last year, according Springboard data cited by the Financial Times). There was some stockpiling of products like sugar, flour and pasta. For instance, sugar sales were 74% higher than the same week in 2019. Once again, purchase of familiar foods is expected to grow in the lockdown and Premier Foods (makers of Mr Kipling cakes, Bisto gravy, Ambrosia and Bird’s custard) are expecting increased sales. So it looks like lockdowns are continuing to fuel a diet of familiarity and comfort.

Compared to the first national lockdown, many food businesses had better systems in place for managing demand this time. Supermarkets were better prepared to manage customer flows, operating traffic light systems or marshals in an extension of existing customer management arrangements developed over the summer/early autumn. While there was some panic buying prior to the lockdown, I haven’t found reports of long queues for supermarkets during the lockdown. Perhaps a combination of supermarkets messaging (for customers to shop alone) and online delivery options lowered footfall in supermarket stores.[1] Jo Whitfield, Chief Executive of the Co-Op said that consumers are spending more on ‘top-up shops’, which have come to complement a shift to ‘big shops’ and online orders, developed in the first lockdown. So more frequent, but shorter shopping trips, may also be spreading footfall in lockdown 2 as customer behaviour adapts.

There has also been continued evolution of customer management, such as the launch of Marks and Spencer’s Book and Shop system, a virtual queueing system where you can book a shopping slot and avoid queuing outside. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are also trialling similar systems, so customers may see more of this next year. Being so new, virtual queuing probably didn’t have much of an effect on lockdown supermarket use, but may become more apparent in the context of ongoing restrictions. In the first national lockdown supermarket ranges were reduced and rationalised.  Even in June ranges were down 9% compared to pre-Covid. But recent research by Assosia found that the numbers of stock keeping units and promotions in nearly all supermarkets has all but returned to pre-pandemic levels. Supermarket supply chains seem to have been better prepared and adapted to Covid restrictions in lockdown 2.

The second lockdown has seen the benefits of the development of the at home market for meal kits – which allow customers to cook or reheat restaurant food at home. Global companies such as the Mindful Chef, Gousto and Hello Fresh have seen soaring subscribers. But local alternatives have also emerged, such as Prepped (there are of course many others) which delivers meal kits from multiple restaurants (in Cambridge and Saffron Walden areas) without a subscription. In 14 interviews with restaurants, an Evening Standard article gives reports from businesses that the market for online sales is becoming saturated and a strong sense of the precarious financial position that some businesses, who are making up for sales with meal kits, are in.

The tiered system will reopen much of the economy, but the survival of many food businesses is still in question. As Covid restrictions change food businesses and consumers are trying to keep up. We will have to see how the renewed tiered system affects the way we make, sell, buy and eat food.

 

[1] If anyone could point me to any supermarket footfall data for lockdown 2, I would be very interested to know whether numbers have dropped, or whether footfall had spread more evenly across the day, lessening customer pressure.

Online Food Business Barometer survey launched

We launched our short Covid Food Business Barometer survey this month. It’s about how things are going for food businesses right now, what they think about the future and how prepared they were for autumn’s Covid-19 restrictions. The survey is just 12 quick questions (we know there are a lot of surveys out there at the moment so we’ve tried to keep it short!).

If you are a food business we invite you to fill in the survey. If you’re not, please do circulate the survey to anyone you think might be interested. The hyperlink above will take you straight to the survey, as will this link: https://exeterssis.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_b29jd2mL3xjhNyJ

After the announcement of Lockdown 2.0 we decided to redesign a longer survey we were planning last month. That survey was about Covid-impacts in different time periods (the first national lockdown and the summer period/tiered lockdown system). We felt that the additional pressures the national lockdown placed on food businesses made a long survey inappropriate, and including an additional lockdown period in the survey would have made it substantially longer. So, with the help of our Expert Panel we have adapted and developed a shorter survey that takes a snapshot of Covid impacts now.

Mapping the UK Food System – A Review

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Hasnain, S., Ingram, J. and Zurek, M. 2020. Mapping the UK Food System – a report for the UKRI Transforming UK Food Systems Programme. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-874370-81-9.

The full report is available on the Global Food Security programme website, where it is supported by an interactive online resource.

This is an impressive piece of work which pulls together a wide range of data on the economic value of the UK food system, the number of enterprises, and levels of employment, providing an assessment of the overall shape of the UK food system and a foundation for further research. It also gathers together in an appendix a goodly number of diagrammatic conceptual representations of the food system. Not easy to copy these from a pdf file (and we might be in breach of copyright if we did!), so take a look at the original and the various attempts made by academics to conceptualise how this complex system works.

Some of the report highlights are as follows:

  • The UK agri-food sector is a major driver of economic growth. Overall, in 2018 it contributed £121 billion or 9.4% to national Gross Value Added (GVA) and the wider system employed 4.3 million people.
  • Food and drink accounts for 20% of the total manufacturing sector by turnover and employs over 430,000 people in the UK.
  • Concentration in the UK economy has increased with time. There are ten large food retailers. Together, the top five food manufacturers have a £30 billion turnover. There are two main UK big players in contract catering while US multinationals dominate fast food alongside SMEs.
  • While the food sector is the biggest employer in the UK, 30% of food manufacturing employees are from the EU (63% of which are in meat processing plants). Other sectors in food employment have low wages, and there is an increasing issue of a lack of appropriate workplace skills.
  •  The UK has the third highest volume sales of ultra-processed foods per capita out of 80 high and middle-income countries, and the most processed diet of countries in Europe. This contributes to the 63% of UK adults being obese or overweight.
  •  Land use is dominated by animal and cereal production (e.g. 52% of croppable area in the UK is covered with cereals).
  • The UK heavily relies on external food sources, particularly the EU. 53% of food consumed in the UK in 2018 was produced domestically, followed by 23% sourced from the EU. There are financial deficits in all food categories, except for drink (due to whisky exports). The UK is importing food that can be grown here, albeit often dictated by seasonality.
  •  Although there are enormous economic benefits from the UK food system, it faces multiple challenges. Diets too rich in fat, sugar, and meat and too low in fruit and vegetables are contributing to obesity and related health problems, especially in deprived households. Unsustainable production methods are driving biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution, water scarcity and climate change in both the UK and overseas. Poor working conditions persist, especially for low-skilled labour in the food sector. Meanwhile, stresses and shocks including climate change, COVID-19, and EU-exit highlight the need for greater resilience. It is clear that transformational change is needed, but this must balance with complex trade-offs and competing needs and interests across the food system.

 

Let me also highlight a few key findings from the main body of the report itself:

 

 

Number of people employed Number of enterprises Economic summary £billion
AGRICULTURAL INPUTS SUPPLIERS

56,000

4,800

3.3

FARMING

447,000

217,000

10.3

FISHING & AQUACULTURE

16,000

4,000

0.9

PROCESSING & MANUFACTURING

430,000

11,000

31.1

WHOLESALING

60,000

16,000

3.0

RETAILING

1,171,000

54,000

30.3

CATERING

1,831,000 135,000

36.4

The UK Food System (Figures 2, 3 & 7 of the report)

 

In addition, there are those employed in the production of packaging (a total of 85,000) and logistics (a total of 2,540,000), for which it is impossible from official data to disaggregate food-related elements. 

Economic impacts, business confidence and local lockdowns

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In a month where Tesco’s posted rising profits, some of the economic impacts of the initial national lockdown are becoming clear. With local lockdowns now implemented, the ‘firebreak’ lockdown across Wales from 23rd October and the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit rearing its head; it’s an interesting time to look at some of the economic impacts of Covid-19 on food businesses.

Tesco’s profits in the first half of the year (26 weeks to 28th Aug 2020) were widely reported as surging (see Essential RetailEvening Standard and The Telegraph) with pre-tax profits up 29% to £551 million. The tidal wave of shoppers opting to do a ‘big shop’, a huge uptick in online orders (up 69%) and the panic buying in March/April all contributed to an operating profit of 1.2bn in the UK retail arm. However, the bottom line was affected by lower sales and an operating loss for Tesco’s Bank, as well as poorer performance in Tesco’s European retail operations. Even so, this increase in profits is clearly significant, and illustrates the extent to which the pandemic has affected consumers buying habits and food choices. Of course, tides may already be changing, as shoppers return to the likes of Aldi and competition in the home delivery market rises.

Tesco may have profited, but the hospitality sector has suffered. Increased home cooking and Covid safe procedures limiting customer numbers, appear to be partly responsible for impacts in the casual dining sector. For instance, owners of Wagamama’s, Frankie & Benny’s and Garfunkel’s chain, The Restaurant Group, posted a pre-tax loss of £235 million (for 26 weeks to 28th June) – almost £150 million more than a loss made in June 2019.  There has, however, been higher sales between July and September 2020 , as restrictions relaxed and some people returned to eating out. Pub chain Wetherspoons reported a loss of £34 million for the year ending in July 2020 (down from a £103 million profit in 2019) – the first annual loss in 36 years . With sales of alcohol in grocery stores up 8% in September and 10pm closing times, there are clearly challenging times for pubs ahead. This month also saw a report of the closure of street food businesses, such as Street Feast, which traded at four sites in London, but struggled to operate under Covid restrictions. While the summer has offered possibilities for al fresco dining and drinking, as winter draws in, one wonders how consumers will respond. I noticed translucent pods outside a café in Exeter, which offered customers some respite from the weather, but clearly, capacity is limited. How far does new(ish) spaces like these, take food businesses?

Away from the financial performance of individual businesses, the Office of National Statistics Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey makes very interesting reading.  In the two weeks from 7th to 20th Sept, 2375 accommodation and food service businesses responded to the survey. Of these respondents, around 2% said business turnover and profit had increased by more than 20%, compared to what they would normally expect for this time of year.[1]  Meanwhile, over 40% of accommodation and food businesses reported that both turnover and profit had decreased by over 20% compared to normal expectations for this time of year.[2]  Such financial figures appear to translate into business confidence, with 30% of accommodation and food businesses reporting that they had low (25.4%), or no (4.6%), confidence that they would survive the next 3 months. While the picture for businesses overall (including all industries, not just accommodation and food) has improved since March, these figures highlight the continued extent of the economic impacts of Covid-19.

With local lockdowns and tiered restrictions in the UK, there is an increasingly pronounced geographical dimension to how these impacts will transform, going forwards. As restrictions alter the possibilities for the food service industry and probably customer preferences for food purchase, along administrative boundaries, existing regional differences in the food system, may well become more marked.

 

[1] Question: In the last two weeks, how has the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected turnover/profits, compared with normal expectations for this time of year? Statistics calculated through sum of turnover/profit categories ‘increased by 20-50%’ and ‘increased by over 50%’. Turnover total (2.5% plus unspecified amount less than 1%), profit total (1.9%)

[2] Question: In the last two weeks, how has the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected turnover/profits, compared with normal expectations for this time of year? Statistics calculated through sum of turnover/profit categories ‘decreased by 20-50%’ and ‘decreased by over 50%’. Turnover total (45.9%), profit total (40.3%)

Survey design as lockdown rules change

By Tim Wilkinson

This month we have been working on designing a questionnaire survey for food businesses. Our survey is exploring the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions and the strategies businesses have implemented in response. It has been challenging designing a survey that will capture the multiple and varied impacts of Covid on business operations, and which addresses the different phases of the lockdown restrictions, which have shaped the type and degree of those impacts. As with nearly all aspects of life at the moment, the process of survey design has been one of adjusting to new Covid restrictions – to make sure the survey works in a variety of lockdown contexts. We discussed a draft of the questionnaire with our Expert Panel last week, and we are currently working with their feedback to develop the survey. We will launch the survey, online, in November.

We are going to be seeking respondents from a range of businesses from different food sectors (e.g. fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy etc.) and from different stages of the supply chain. Having created a sampling frame, after much discussion, we decided to focus on several stages of the food supply chain – but not all. We are focussing on transporters of primary products, food processors, manufacturers, importers, exporters, wholesalers and distributors. We have chosen not to cover primary producers, hospitality or retailers in the survey – although they are important parts of the food system. This was partly because it was so challenging to write robust questions that individual businesses from across the whole food system could answer in a standard way. But also because there are excellent secondary data sources from market research, particularly for retail and hospitality. We will be exploring the impacts of Covid-19 on primary producers in our Centre for Rural Policy Research South West Farm Survey 2020, which we launched this month. We are also investigating the possibility of running a survey of tourism and hospitality businesses in the South West early next year to gather data on this sector.

As part of our background work in this part of the project, we reviewed existing surveys that look at the impacts of Covid-19 on businesses. There are, of course, a number of surveys doing this. We found 16, but not all were exclusively about food businesses (they covered a range of industries). Some surveys focussed on only one stage in the food supply chain (for example, only covering manufacturers or food processors). Other surveys only looked at businesses in one particular UK region or had geographical foci abroad. It is worth checking out the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey, which has tracked changes to business turnover, workforce, prices, trade and resilience every two weeks since 9th March. The ONS data set includes all industries, although some separate data are available for food and beverage importers and exporters.

Despite identifying a wide range of Covid-19 impact surveys, we found that a cross-sectoral look at the impacts of Covid-19 on food business specifically, both during and after the national lockdown in the UK, has not been made. In such a rapidly changing situation, we are discussing the possibility of repeating the survey at some point next year. However, we will use the data we collect in November to understand the food chain responses to shocks in 2020. We will be exploring our key findings in interviews with businesses in order to understand more of the story behind the incredible shifts in business practice. The outcomes of the research will be available to inform policy on food business resilience and preparedness for future shocks to the supply chain and food system.

Meat Again!

Four raw meat steaks on a wooden table

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

I found myself in Grimsby recently talking about meat! Well not literally on the east coast, for it was yet another virtual encounter.  The National Food Strategy invited me to be an ‘expert’ for one of their public dialogue events and a fascinating evening it proved to be. I have had a number of experiences of public engagement events over the years and this one was no exception in proving to be stimulating and fun with a touch of the unexpected thrown in. I can’t breach confidentiality by revealing the views of the Grimsby people I ‘met’. But I can say how impressed I was by their willingness to engage with the excellent material prepared by the NFS team and contribute to some stimulating debate on the issue of meat consumption. The debate was wide ranging and certainly not confined only to health and/or methane and climate change. I look forward to seeing what use the NFS makes of insights drawn from the public dialogues.

I drew particular satisfaction from the Grimsby conversations for two reasons: first the non- confrontational nature of the exchanges in contrast to other discussions on the topic I have on occasion been party to; and secondly, the novelty of some of the thinking.  There has not been a great deal new said on the meat debate in recent research publications that I have seen – the climate change and dietary arguments now follow a rather well-worn path. But I sat up when I saw the title of a new publication from the Global Food Security Programme, mainly because I didn’t initially understand it: ‘Low-agency population interventions to reduce meat consumption’ (Reynolds et al 2020).  It transpires that agency in this context refers to people’s ability or inclination to act, and therefore low-agency population interventions are those that require little or no engagement from the individuals affected.  Does this mark a shift from the behaviour change agenda that has been rather dominant for quite a while in debates about shifting people towards more sustainable and healthy lifestyles?  Well a single academic paper does not amount to a policy shift, so only time will tell whether the low-agency approach has traction.  But what exactly does it mean in practice?  The authors propose low-agency population interventions as a response to the intention-behaviour gap citing studies that have shown that a willingness amongst some consumers to reduce meat consumption may not lead to a change in levels of consumption.  This is usually put down to the widespread availability of meat, large portion sizes, marketing, and the low cost of less healthy foods. In this context it is ‘unlikely that the sole provision of information about the health and environmental risks associated with meat consumption will reduce its consumption’. The alternative low agency approach is where:

… food environments are designed to encourage individuals to make healthier and more sustainable food choices without limiting their freedom of choice. In these environments, extreme levels of self-control would not be required to avoid the overconsumption of meat. Instead, changes to the environment would guide individuals toward consuming less meat with minimal conscious engagement and may therefore be more effective and equitable than other strategies. This approach can also change norms; being provided with smaller portion sizes can lead to individuals choosing smaller portions in other settings.  Low-agency population interventions include taxes on less healthy foods or nudging strategies like changing the availability and placement of food products, reformulating food products and changing portion sizes. These approaches have been demonstrated to reduce individuals’ excess consumption of many types of food (e.g. chocolate, hot meals, crisps) and therefore have potential for reducing meat consumption.

The authors have systematically reviewed a wide range of literature to explore the various low agency options and are careful to point out how robust the evidence and data are for each option. Except that this careful objectivity slips in the conclusions where they say that ‘stakeholders working to produce and sell meat products throughout the food system are likely to oppose such interventions’. For this bold claim they cite a single reference which is a study of fast food vendors near secondary schools in disadvantaged Scottish neighbourhoods and is based on interviews with ten fast food shop managers. I would suggest that this rather specific source hardly provides sufficient evidence to make a claim about what might happen throughout the food system, a system which is highly complex and diverse and which our research is seeking to uncover and explain.

 

Reynolds J.P. Scalco A. Ejebu O. Toumpakari Z. Smith A. Lu F. Clark B. and Penney T.L. (2020) Low-agency population interventions to reduce meat consumption, Report produced for the Global Food Security Programme. September 2020.

It’s not just about COVID: Food in the news

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

There has been a spate of press coverage in recent days about food related issues and not all are about COVID impacts. The prospects of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period may well have a more severe impact on food supplies, certainly in the short-term, than the impact of COVID in March and April. How COVID and Brexit combine to serve up a cocktail of challenges is the theme of an article in the Sunday Times on the 18th October entitled ‘Jingling tills won’t solve a tricky midwinter for supermarkets’. The supermarkets are expected to ‘benefit’ from the new restrictions on the hospitality sector, and delivery slots are already filling up. The big four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – are reported to be preparing plans to extend hours, use virtual queueing apps and have awnings outside stores to give shelter to those queuing. On top of all this are the uncertainties associated with the end of the Brexit transition period. The Sunday Times piece speculates that ‘fear of border delays in the new year could spur shoppers to indulge in festive stockpiling, leaving supermarkets with empty shelves and warehouses’.

On a similar Brexit trade theme, the Financial Times reports on concerns that organic farmers in the UK may not be able to export to the EU after the Transition Period ends due to uncertainty around whether the EU will recognise the certification of UK goods with an organic label. The piece reports that UK exports worth up to £225m a year could be in peril and that EU businesses are already winding down orders from the UK as time for a trade deal runs out.

Returning to the COVID theme, the Guardian reports that major food companies have written to the Chancellor about the risk posed to food supplies to care homes, schools, hospitals and prisons as the loss of income associated with the decline of the hospitality sector has put some wholesalers at risk. The companies advocate more Government support for wholesalers. In contrast, an in-depth piece in the New Statesman claims that some wholesalers have benefitted unfairly from Government funding of food boxes for the vulnerable. Anoosh Chakelian in ‘Revealed: The £208m food box rip-off’ pulls no punches denouncing the poor nutritional quality of the contents of food boxes for the clinically extremely vulnerable and moreover claiming that the Government paid private contractors almost double the retail value for food parcels, through the £208 million contract. Kath Dalmeny, the chief executive of food and farming charity Sustain described the boxes as a ‘mixed picture of food quality’, and the scheme as ‘logistically impressive’ but ‘nutritionally questionable’. The reference to Sustain took me scurrying off to the Sustain website where I found a challenging piece by Kath Dalmeny calling for ‘a public inquiry into the Covid-19 emergency food response, to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again’. She sets out 7 key questions: Why did so many people go hungry before and during the Covid-19 pandemic?

  1. Why has it been so hard for Government to recognise and relieve financial hardship for those most in need?
  2. Why was it so hard to ensure children from very low-income families got the food they needed?
  3. Why did Sustain have to resort to legal action to secure government action on child holiday hunger?
  4. Why don’t we treat meals on wheels services more seriously?
  5. How do we stop supermarket shelves from emptying ahead of impending shocks to our supply chains?
  6. Why was so much public money given to supermarkets and not local shops and suppliers?

For more details on the above see: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jul20_covid19_food_insecurity_mustnt_happen_again/

In August’s Bulletin, I talked about the National Food Strategy, which clearly provides one of the more promising routes to address at least some of these questions. Of course, the origins of the NFS pre-date COVID and so does food poverty, and so we finish with the starting point of this piece that there are food issues which are not just about COVID. Let me give the final word to someone who has been in the news a good deal recently, the footballer Marcus Rashford who on the 15th October launched his petition calling for an end to child poverty writing as follows:

‘For too long this conversation has been delayed. Child food poverty in the UK is not a result of COVID-19. We must act with urgency to stabilise the households of our vulnerable children. In 2020, no child in the UK should be going to bed hungry, nor should they be sat in classrooms concerned about how their younger siblings are going to eat that day, or how they are going to access food come the holidays. The school holidays used to be a highlight of the year for children. Today, it is met with anxiety from those as young as 7-years old. Many have said that education is the most effective means of combating poverty. I do not disagree with this statement, but education is only effective when children can engage in learning. Right now, a generation who have already been penalised during this pandemic with lack of access to educational resources are now back in school struggling to concentrate due to worry and the sound of their rumbling stomachs. Whatever your feeling, opinion, or judgement, food poverty is never the child’s fault. Let’s protect our young. Let’s wrap arms around each other and stand together to say that this is unacceptable, that we are united in protecting our children. Today, millions of children are finding themselves in the most vulnerable of environments and are beginning to question what it really means to be British. I’m calling on you all today to help me prove to them that being British is something to be proud of.’

Baking for stress-relief during a pandemic

 

By Veronica White

I don’t know about you, but I was very happy when I heard that The Great British Bake Off was returning this Autumn. In this year of lockdowns and social distancing, there’s something incredibly comforting about watching the bakers in their ‘Covid bubble’, where there’s no fear of a (Hollywood) handshake.

It’s not just watching Bake Off that lets me escape. Since the start of the pandemic, I have found peace in baking. When the stress of writing my master’s dissertation or job applications was too much, I would take the evening off to bake. As Instagram was flooded with photos tagged #covidbaking and #quarantinebaking, it was clear I wasn’t the only one turning to baking as a way of distracting myself from reality.

Home baking soared during the UK’s initial COVID lockdown, as people looked for ways to fill new ‘spare-time’, deal with stress and connect with others on social media. When supermarkets struggled with the high demand for flour and yeast, bakers got creative – turning towards flour-less bakes and sourdough. It wasn’t just individuals who got in on the baking trend: chains such as Pret and Greggs released the recipes for their beloved bakes, while chefs and restaurants hosted ‘cook-alongs’ on Instagram. Feel free to leave us a comment letting us know what you’ve been baking!

A quick look at Google trends for some key search terms highlights a significant increase in interest at the beginning of lockdown, gradually falling off again in the summer months. Yet interest appears to be growing again, perhaps due to a combination of tightening COVID restrictions and Bake Off coming back to our screens.In her essay for The Correspondent, Emily Dreyfuss writes about how sharing pictures of our bakes on social media helps remind us ‘we’re all in this, whatever this is, together’. The importance of feeling a part of a community is also discussed by Easterbrook-Smith (2020), who suggests that in addition to providing sustenance and stress-relief, baking allows us to demonstrate our skills on social media and connect virtually with people when face-to-face contact is limited.

A few weeks ago, I started baking my own bread. It’s still far from perfect, but I quickly realised how much money I can save by baking my own loaves. Following the financial crisis in 2008, Italians began baking more bread and pizza at home, while here in the UK, home baking also increased. According to the AHDB, a ‘third of consumers have had some change to their household employment status’ because of COVID-19 and will, therefore, likely be looking for ways to save money on food. Their survey found that 72% of consumers are cooking from scratch more in an attempt to save money. Future research should look specifically at whether home baking is being used as a method of reducing shopping costs.

Whether I’m curled up on the couch watching Bake Off or baking banana bread in the kitchen, it’s easy to forget what’s going on in the world outside our living room. Over the last few months, baking has offered many of us a much-needed break, a creative outlet. Will this interest in home baking continue in a post-pandemic world? For the sake of our mental health and our wallets, I hope so.