UK food manufacturers and retailers are widely seen to be doing well in keeping the country fed during the coronavirus pandemic, though there have been shortages and growing concerns about staff welfare. Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer at UK food manufacturing trade body The Food and Drink Federation, discusses with Ben Cooper how food firms are responding to the emergency, and asks if the crisis is changing how people value food and the companies and workers responsible for producing it.

Danger and deprivation concentrate the mind. It is when these unwelcome visitors come calling we truly appreciate what most matters to us – family, friends, our health – and what we really need in order to live.

It may take some of us longer to realise life can carry on without karaoke parties but, even those 30 slack-jawed Sinatras from Derby discovered last weekend belting their way through My Way and I Will Survive, understand that they most certainly will not without food.

In times of plenty people have probably always taken food somewhat for granted and, thanks to modern food distribution, developed countries effectively live in a permanent time of plenty. The availability of food, in rich variety and sufficient quantity, is simply not a concern, until something like Covid-19 hits.

Nonetheless, Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of UK food manufacturing trade body The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), believes the companies that make up the organisation’s membership have “responded magnificently” to ensure the continuity of food supply in exacting circumstances. “I think we’ll look back on these few weeks as a real triumph for the food supply chain,” he tells just-food.

“Double-Christmas” demand

For that to happen, the UK food industry clearly will have to continue to perform at an unprecedented capacity for as long as lockdown measures are in place, and continue to produce well above average volumes for some time after that.

According to market researchers Kantar, the UK grocery market grew by 20.6% in the four weeks to 22 March, making it the biggest month on record for grocery sales. Growth over the last 12 weeks was 7.6%, the fastest rate in over a decade.

To put the surge in demand in perspective, Rycroft quantifies it in terms of the sector’s peak period. “Given that we were operating an incredibly lean supply chain, in the sense of efficient, cost-efficient, just-in-time, to move to a model in which demand increased by between 20% and 50%, to a Christmas level at the bottom end of that scale and to double-Christmas at the top of that scale, I think it has been a genuinely extraordinary achievement.”

Rycroft suggests the industry is “over the worst” in terms of consumers suddenly buying far more than they usually would. At first, this strain on the food system was widely believed to have been created by irresponsible stockpiling and panic buying. While TV pictures revealed there was some truth in this, data from Kantar suggests it was possibly overstated.

Crucially, not all consumers buying in volume were, or felt they were, acting irresponsibly. Rycroft believes many may have simply misconstrued or panicked at some of the government messaging and reporting. “One of the things that’s interesting when I look at the data that’s come out of people like Kantar is that very few people think they are panic-buying or stockpiling,” Rycroft reflects. “Most people think they’re making entirely sensible and rational decisions to prepare themselves for what the government has asked them to do. The way in which we communicate these things is very interesting. Are there ways in which we could have messaged this more effectively that would have resulted in different patterns of buying?”

Cutting it fine

Possibly no food system can cope when panic-buying really takes hold but research seems to suggest this was not the case. Moreover, some analysts and food campaigners contend the just-in-time model Rycroft refers to as a mitigation for some of the shortages, is in fact the problem itself.

Acts of heroism are amplified in film and TV if the hero saves the day in the nick of time but there is no analogy in maintaining the food supply in a crisis. Does the ultra-efficient UK food system have enough redundancy and spare capacity to cope with a crisis?

Rycroft says there have only been “limited shortages” as manufacturers “have massively increased their production, and distribution and logistics”. He also says “people are not going hungry”. This is perhaps something everybody needs to bear in mind as it is sadly unlikely to be the case in some other parts of the world where coronavirus is yet to take hold. However, in countries like the UK, accustomed to plenty, it is a low bar, and unlikely to go that far in placating consumers or quelling concerns about the robustness of the food system. Also, reminding consumers that the lean supply chain allows for lower food prices may not cut much ice during a crisis.

“The beneficiaries of a lean, low-cost supply chain are ultimately consumers which is why food prices are some of the lowest in the world in terms of the proportion of disposable income we spend on food in this country,” Rycroft points out. “Even if you took the view that it’s too lean, it needs to have more flexibility, more capacity to adapt to these kinds of surges, that can only be achieved at cost. And it’s hard to see in the current model, how you would reach any kind of agreement across the supply chain where that cost was going to be borne. The orthodoxy for a very long time is that consumers want and expect low food prices, and if you want a system that has more flexibility, which is to respond to demand in the event of what looks like being a 100-year event, I think you would find it quite hard to reach an agreement about how you would build that in.”

That said, Rycroft says the relaxation in UK competition law announced by the Government has “led to retailers working with retailers, retailers working with suppliers, in a way that was inconceivable a month ago”. He wonders whether the experience may lead to “a different type of conversation” when the pandemic is over.

As happened during the Brexit debate, Rycroft says the crisis is prompting consumers to think more about where their food originates and how it is produced, and hopes this will help foster “a better-informed debate about the kind of system that we want and the costs and benefits that go with the choices we make.”

Worker anxiety growing

One way in which consumers may come to value the food system more during the crisis is if not only the companies but those working in the sector are regarded as fulfilling a vital role for the nation. The FDF is running a campaign called Hidden Heroes to showcase the work of people behind the scenes in food and drink manufacturing who are, Rycroft says, “going the extra mile, doing extraordinary things, to increase productivity”.

In that context, recent stories about workers in food facilities being extremely anxious about the maintenance of social distancing rules, leading trade union Unite to call for the introduction of mandatory regulations, will be a concern.

“I don’t think there’s any sense our members are being cavalier about social distancing or careless with the safety of their workers”

“I don’t think there’s any sense that our members are being cavalier about this or careless with the safety of their workers. I think it’s worth saying at the outset that food factories in my experience are extremely clean places anyway,” Rycroft says, adding he is “impressed by not only the rules that are in the place but the fact that everybody follows them; that it’s very much ingrained into the culture”.

He believes regulatory intervention is not the answer. “I think a mandatory rule is too rigid in these circumstances. I don’t know in practice how you could make that work. Clearly, there are some processes where it’s challenging to follow the social distancing guidance in terms of two-metre separation without impacting on productivity at a time when productivity is really important. So, some businesses are wrestling with that dilemma, but all of them are coming from a place of wanting to reassure their workforce, to do everything they can to make them feel comfortable and supported.” 

Amid the discussion in the media of companies being boycotted because they have not responded to the crisis in the manner the public expects, the FDF will be striving to avoid a situation where food workers may be heralded as heroes, but not some of their employers.

“I’m confident that our members are trying to do the very best they can, not only because it is the right thing to do but also to ensure that people feel sufficiently reassured to want to come to work and keep doing that job which is so vital,” Rycroft adds.

Pointing to how consumer awareness about the food system had risen during the Brexit debate, Rycroft believes the current situation will do the same, increasing both public appreciation and scrutiny. “I am optimistic that we will emerge from this with a better understanding of the food system, which will bring with it both opportunity and challenge for us,” he says, adding in conclusion: “I’m optimistic, when this chapter of the history of the food industry is written, it will be a glorious one.”

Rycroft stops short of suggesting food workers will be able to tell their grandchildren this was their “finest hour”, but a slight hesitation suggests he may have been thinking about it. It was the right call.

Although there’s been plenty of him around in recent weeks, Churchill should be reserved for very special occasions. When the dust has settled, and it is hopefully shown the food sector did indeed do the nation proud in a tight spot, it will be the time to light that cigar and reflect on a job well done.