Trade body FoodDrinkEurope is asking the European Commission (EC) to intervene to relieve supply chain pressure during the coronavirus epidemic.

The body, which represents food and beverage companies operating in Europe, said it has identified five pressure points putting a particular strain on the food supply chain.

FDE director general Mella Frewen said: “If we act on these five areas now, we believe we can avoid serious disruptions to food and drink supplies to consumers and safeguard our jobs and businesses.”   

The organisation has written to EC president Ursula von der Leyen and is calling on the Commission, in close co-ordination with EU member states, to take urgent action.

It is firstly asking it to support the food sector workforce, including factory workers, fork-lift and lorry drivers, who produce food and to transport it to destination markets. 

“With many of the workforce off sick, following guidance to stay at home, facing travel restrictions and quarantine at borders, or looking after children, we face a serious risk of labour shortages,” FoodDrinkEurope said.

“Given their essential role to maintain food security in Europe, we urge the Commission to provide EU guidelines to member states to establish harmonised protocols for food sector workers to continue their work safely, where they are fit and able, just as workers in the medical sector have also been given special dispensations and privileges.”

The lobby group has also asked the EC to recognise the entire food supply chain as essential.

“We are aware that different member states have different interpretations of what may constitute an ‘essential’ sector and the measures to keep the food value chain in full operation. Food and drink products, ingredients, packaging and packaging materials (which among other things are essential for food safety and transportation), feed and pet food, need to be regarded as essential by all EU member states, to avoid delays at borders,” it said.

FoodDrinkEurope is also calling on the EC to help unlock transport bottlenecks.

“Our members are reporting long delays at borders as lorries are either delayed or prevented from crossing borders entirely. In addition, companies are starting to receive requests to provide delivery lorries with an official company document stating that the lorry contents are classified as an ‘essential sector’ of vital importance or asking for ‘certificates’, it said.

“No such standardised paperwork exists across the EU, leading to yet more delays. There are further concerns that goods blocked at borders will go to waste without emergency measures to re-distribute or donate them.  

“We request that the Commission follow-up on the measures set out in the Informal Transport Council of March 18, including strongly encouraging members states to implement the priority ‘green lanes’ for food sector lorries, and waiving existing weekend bans.”

FoodDrinkEurope is also asking the EC to support struggling businesses.

“Ninety-nine percent of the EU’s food and drink businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The coronavirus pandemic is threatening the continued existence of many of these businesses. One major impact on food and drink manufacturers has been the closure of large segments of the foodservice sector – including restaurants, hotels, bars and cafeterias. Food business operators have reported a significant fall in demand along with general delays in their supply chains,” it said.

“We urge the Commission, in collaboration with member states, to develop comprehensive emergency measures for the food sector, to minimise the financial impact on food businesses, maintain jobs and to help re-build the economic sustainability of the sector over the long term.”

It is asking for a “flexible and pragmatic regulatory environment which supports vulnerable businesses in these times of crisis”.

FoodDrinkEurope also wants the EC to help facilitate further global trade.

“Since the coronavirus outbreak, our members have reported declining sales, particularly in China and the wider Asia region. Uncertainty is a major problem for exporters. Some of them have not been able to ship merchandise for two months, while others are experiencing noticeable delays from their usual clients,” it said.

“The European food and drink industry is also reliant on ingredients imported from third countries to manufacture products – these supply chains are also severely disrupted. 

“We ask the Commission to hold bilateral talks with our major trade partners to facilitate trade in food and drink products and essential ingredients and call for international collaboration to ensure that products can continue to move globally.”