A bit late, but some more thoughts on the labour question

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Even in the best organised research project – and I am not claiming that epithet for our project! – it is  possible to miss some really valuable research. So back in June 2020 a report snuck past me and only came to light as a reference in a recently published journal article (Tougeron and Hance 2021). Commissioned by a consortium comprising the National Farmers Union, the British Growers Association, British Summer Fruits and British Apples and Pears, John Pelham of the consultants Andersons produced a report entitled ‘The Potential Implications of Covid-19 for the Costs of Production of UK Fruit & Vegetables in 2020’.

The report is based on a postal survey and follow-up interviews with 27 fruit and vegetable growers, with a combined turnover of over £600 million.  What is so useful about the research is that it really delves into reasons why labour was and continues to be such an issue for this sector, albeit looked at entirely through the costs lens. One sentence in particular caught my eye in this regard:

… the cost of labour for wheat production – the most widely grown crop in the UK – is typically in the range £80-150 per hectare; the range for field strawberry production, for example, is typically £40,000-70,000 per hectare.

 What a difference and to think that we bracket these two radically contrasting production systems together as part of the same industry!

The report details the various ways in which labour cost were affected by the first wave of the pandemic as follows (taken from pages 9-10 of the report):

 

Worker Availability and Recruitment

Whilst some growers have been able to recruit their seasonal workforces without extra cost, many reported incurring additional expenditure to acquire adequate staff, either from the EU or UK. Additional costs have included:

  • New recruitment campaigns.
  • Funding transport (including, in some cases, air travel).
  • Agents fees.
  • Processing, selecting and interviewing new applicants.

 

Training

One indicator that growers use in measuring labour productivity is the proportion of their workforce who have been on the farm in the previous season or seasons – the so-called ‘returnees’. This measure is important in that these workers have already been trained and gained the experience to be able to operate at productive rates. Many growers will target a 60-70% returnee rate.  Conversely, new workers lack both training and experience, so not only incur additional induction costs, but also – without experience – have much lower productivity. Some new workers may not reach commercial work rates until their second season on a holding.

For certain growers (although not all), Covid-19 has reduced the number of returnees, to as low as 30%; training costs, for new workers, have increased accordingly.  Ensuring that all employees are fully briefed on new Covid-19 procedures for social distancing and hygiene has also increased the requirement both for initial and continuing training.

 

Accommodation

Reasons for cost increases in this area include:

  • Acquiring additional accommodation to provide quarantine facilities for newly arriving workers / suspected Covid-19 cases.
  • Payment of workers’ wages during quarantine period.

Acquiring additional accommodation to reduce density of occupation and enable worker groups to be kept separate to counter potential cross-infection.

  • Engaging new employees specifically for additional cleaning/hygiene operations.
  • Setting up of on-site shop facilities to avoid workers having to leave the grower site.

 

Transport and Logistics

Where accommodation and working sites are close together transport is not an issue, but will be where workers have to travel (some growers will have working sites in both categories).

The two main increases in costs arise from:

  • Increased vehicle movements resulting from significantly reduced vehicle occupancy rates.
  • Cleaning of vehicles between trips.

 

Operations

All growers have seen cost increases in this category, both from new costs (e.g. additional staff or equipment) and from reduced productivity of existing or replacement employees.

Some examples include:

  • The need for additional training and supervisory staff to ensure that social distancing in the workplace is organised, understood and maintained; for nearly all growers their ratio of supervisors to operating staff has increased.
  • The introduction of new shift patterns for crop husbandry and harvesting operations to reduce/remove contact between worker groups (to reduce risk of cross- infection).
  • A higher turnover and significantly lower work rates in newly recruited staff.
  • The requirement in packhouses to introduce additional shifts to maintain social distancing, with additional overtime costs, together with the new cost of “deep cleaning” between shifts.
  • The cleaning down of operations machinery (for example mechanical harvesting equipment) at operator changeover.

 

However, despite these significant new costs Pelham also emphasised that labour costs had increased even more sharply as a result of changes in the National Living Wage which had seen an increase in labour costs of 34% between 2016 and 2020.  Returning to the strawberry example, Pelham estimates a COVID related increase in labour costs of around 8%. This is one of many examples of where COVID-induced changes have to be seen in the context of other changes, here labour costs, but often Brexit related changes.

John Pelham’s report bears the legend ‘A First Report’. John informs me via email that he has not been commissioned to produce a second report. This is a great shame because the issues he identified are certainly worth another look in the context of both Brexit and further rounds of lockdown.

 

Tougeron, K., & Hance, T. (2021) Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on apple orchards in Europe. Agricultural Systems, 190, 103097. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2021.103097

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Report

 

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

On the 7th April 2021, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a follow-up inquiry[1] to its initial inquiry in 2020[2] on the impacts of the pandemic on food. The focus of the new report is on food insecurity for individuals and the food supply chain. The report highlights how, in contrast to the first national lockdown when those shielding for health reasons received national food parcels, in the 2021 lockdown they were asked to rely on online delivery services or friends or family. The Committee highlighted concerns that this change of policy excluded people unable to afford retailers’ minimum spends and/or delivery charges. The Committee recommended that the Government should ask retailers to lower their minimum spend requirements and not to make delivery charges for shielding customers. Concerns were also highlighted around the issue of in-store COVID-19 measures causing difficulties for disabled customers and the need for retailers to make adjustments.

Not surprisingly, much of the report’s attention is directed to the shift in January from food parcels to vouchers for those families eligible for free school meals (the 1.7 million children in the UK living in households that are food insecure). As reported in the January version of this Bulletin, serious concerns, highlighted by Marcus Rashford amongst others, over the suitability of some of the parcels led to the reintroduction of a national voucher scheme. The Committee felt that schools should have multiple options for the provision of free school meals and be allowed to choose the best one for their own pupils’ needs. They concluded as follows:

It is therefore unfortunate that the failings of some suppliers, in terms of quality and value for money, led to a fall in public confidence in England given that parcels are the best option in some circumstances. It is important that the sector and Government learns from these failings and ensures that any future offering is consistently up to standard and delivers value for money.

The Committee took the opportunity to look beyond the immediate issue of dealing with food poverty in the context of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and highlighted the need to understand better the causes and consequences of food insecurity:

… the Government should … produce annual reports on food security under the Agriculture Act, at least in the short to medium term. Ministers have mobilised their departments to support vulnerable people to access food during the pandemic, but this impetus needs to be sustained. A Minister for Food Security should be appointed and supported by robust cross-Government structures to ensure that all interested departments prioritise the issue of food insecurity, and the Government should consult on how a ‘Right to Food’ could be introduced in England.

The final report on the National Food Strategy will make for interesting reading in this context as will the Government’s response both to this Select Committee report and to the National Food Strategy report.

The Select Committee report also confronts the problems – discussed in earlier bulletins – faced by wholesalers impacted both by the sudden switch from food parcels to vouchers in January 2021[3] and by the decline of the hospitality sector. It urges Government to urgently assess the impact of the closures to the hospitality sector on its suppliers and provide additional financial support to them during the period of reopening.

As ever, with Select Committee reports, the report contains invaluable links to the submitted evidence, 42 different submissions in this instance.

 

[1] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2019–21, ‘Covid-19 and the Issues of Security in Food Supply’, HC 1156.

[2] Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, ‘COVID-19 and food supply’, HC 263.

[3] This was rightly seen by many as benefitting retailers at the expense of wholesalers.  The retailers which participated in the voucher scheme were Aldi, Iceland, McColl’s, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, M&S, Farm Foods and the Company Shop Group (a retail outlet for the redistribution of surplus food and household products).

Reopening of hospitality

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The 12th April 2021 marked Step 2 on the government’s Covid roadmap, giving us further possibilities of a less restricted life. Hospitality businesses were able to open to customers served outside. With non-essential shops and highstreets reopening too, the date was also something of a symbol of coming out of the pandemic in England. While this is welcome, change is not without difficulties. There are, of course, positives for food service businesses that are willing and able to reopen premises and serve customers outside. But beneath headlines about sky rocketing high street footfall and pent up demand, hospitality businesses and their suppliers, are negotiating a change that presents tricky questions about moving forwards.

 

Nervousness

To survive the last year, many food service businesses have found new routes to market and/or have rationalised their offer. For some casual dining businesses, takeaways or meal boxes have offered more than just a lifeline and have been developed into lucrative income streams, which look set to supplement income from restaurant diners going forward. The owner of pizza chain, Franco Manca, Fulham Shore for instance, are looking to expand and open new restaurants as takeaway and collection raise profits. Some food-to-go chains, like Pret A Manager, have started supplying supermarkets. Pret struck a deal to sell baked goods at Tesco’s, in March. Meanwhile, smaller, independent business have found new routes to market via coffee vans or by serving hospitals and key workers. For some, these changes of business model have worked well; others will want to return to pre-Covid practices as soon as possible. I understand from our Expert Panel that there is nervousness about the choices businesses have as restrictions lift. While shifting back to pre-Covid business models might be very welcome for some, it is not without risk. For smaller businesses the risk is greater and decisions about whether, and what, to change are more difficult. It seems likely food businesses will continue to need to adapt and be agile, but after an extremely challenging year, cash flow will be an issue, especially where additional investment is needed to reopen or where there are existing debts to suppliers.

There are questions and concerns about when to reopen businesses. Outdoor-only dining limits capacity so some businesses will choose not to reopen until they can serve enough customers to make a profit. While approximately 38% of licensed premises have outdoor space to serve customers, only 12% of casual dining restaurants do. There is regional variability too; outdoor space is highest in the South West where 51% of premises have space outdoors. But the Caterer reported that under a quarter of licensed premises in England opened for trade in the week following 12th April. Capacity limitations, mean some food businesses reopening in April and May will make a loss, despite being open (less of a loss than being closed, but still a loss). This has some financial benefits, and being partially open may raise business profile, but for some businesses, particularly smaller ones, when exactly to reopen will remain a difficult decision.

For institutional caterers, uncertainties remain around returning to the office and hybrid working patterns. What will office ‘rituals’ (coffee mornings, shared lunches and meetings) look like as offices reopen? How will hybrid working patterns impact the catering offer? The pandemic has raised levels of ‘at home cooking’, but might we see a future where institutional caterers could serve at home workers? We will have to wait and see. For the time being, pent up demand for casual dining seems to be in evidence. Perhaps the same will be the case when it is safe for a mass return to the office. Wholesalers have reported struggling to meet demand from hospitality and rising consumer confidence is a good sign for businesses, although there is a suggestion that we are witnessing a ‘K-shaped recovery’ where there is increasing divergence between consumer groups who have prospered over the last year and those who haven’t.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that two campaigns were in the news over the last few weeks about businesses supporting hospitality reopening. One was from wholesale, Brakes who launched their ‘Help for Hospitality’ Campaign cutting prices on 3,500 products, the other was Tesco’s national newspaper campaign encouraging its customers to ‘pop to your local if you can’ asking customers to support local pubs rather than go to Tesco’s. This continues a theme we’ve seen throughout the pandemic of food citizenship and support. Will this community spirit persist as we move into a post-Covid summer?

Trade and Agriculture Commission report: ‘bold vision’ or ‘hollow’ promises?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

These words are not mine but a question posed by Speciality Food on publication of the Commission report in March. Given the high profile of the debate around food standards in the run up to the last-gasp Brexit deal, and during the passage through Parliament of the Agriculture bill, the response in the media to the publication of the Report has been surprisingly low-key. It is not as though the fears over imports of chlorinated chicken or intensively reared beef have somehow evaporated nor, indeed, that food exports have been smooth since January – the plight of the fishing sector  to take the most obvious and high-profile example.  And the Commission itself was a direct response to concerns over trade, including a petition with 2.6 million signatures urging the protection of UK food standards and bans on certain pesticides and hormones. So why the muted response in the mainstream media? Possibly the clue lies in the Speciality Food headline. This is one of those reports that can be read in different ways and specialists have done just that. Speciality Food contrast the responses of the NFU and Organic Farmers and Growers. Now these two bodies may have very different views on many issues but it might have been expected that on the issue of British food standards and trade they would have been at one. Instead NFU president, Minette Batters, welcomed the report for its efforts to ‘reconcile the complexities and tensions inherent in government trade policy’ and for setting out ‘a bold vision to manage those tensions’. By contrast, Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers and Growers condemned the report as ‘merely a fig leaf for the UK government to hide behind’. In a letter to Speciality Food, he said, ‘The UK’s agricultural industry faces being eviscerated by a lack of meaningful support and risks being left increasingly vulnerable to the whims of an unstable, imbalanced world food market.’

The TAC Vision

‘The UK has an ambitious trade policy which contributes to a global farming and food system that is fair and trusted by all its participants, including farmers, businesses and citizens, from source to consumption. Our food is safe, healthy, affordable, produced in a way which does not harm the planet, respects the dignity of animals and provides proper reward for those involved.’

So what’s going on?  Well one answer is in the careful wording used in the report. Let me show this with one quote about the need for the Government to develop a bold, ambitious agri-food trade strategy. The words I have emboldened are the important ones:

‘…an approach to imports which would align with its overall approach to trade liberalisation and seek to lower its tariffs and quotas to zero within trade agreements over a reasonable time period. …contingent on imports meeting the high standards of food production expected from UK producers. It would be dynamic, recognising the interplay between general trade policy, the provisions of specific free trade agreements and the success of UK advocacy for animal welfare, environmental and ethical standards in international fora.’

A ‘reasonable time period’ implies a fluidity that might or might not deliver in short order what those 2.6 million people wanted, so too the word ‘dynamic’ has a certain slipperiness about it. Not that the Commission is anything other than explicit as to why it has chosen this wording (again I have imposed my own emphasis):

‘We know that we should be practical and recognise that the UK government is currently continuing negotiating a number of free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. There would be challenges resulting from changing this approach in the immediate short-term. Our recommendation is a strategic aspiration for UK trade policy in the medium and longer term.’ 

In other words we might get those higher standards within future trade agreements but not necessarily for these early agreements which, of course, includes the USA. Scarcely surprising then that Vicki Hird of Sustain, and a member of our Expert Panel, welcomed the emphasis on protecting standards and the need for strong impact assessments of possible trade deals, but says the report prioritises trade liberalisation over other considerations.

It is quite likely that media attention will escalate as and when the Government responds to the report. It’s a long report and has 22 recommendations which you can see at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trade-and-agriculture-commission-tac/trade-and-agriculture-commission-final-report-executive-summary

How should the meat food chain be regulated?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

It has become customary for critics of the UK food system to attack the weakness and fragmentation of regulatory arrangements: too many government departments with inadequately demarcated responsibilities, compounded by differences between different parts of the union and the weakness of local government. The usual standard-bearers for this critique might be termed the ‘RRs’ = the ‘resilience radicals’ or even, some might argue, ‘revolutionaries’. For the RRs, resilience is taken to include, amongst other things, a fundamental shift to agro-ecological or organic farming systems, a much more plant-based diet, shorter local food chains, and a decentralised regulatory or governance system that really is first and foremost about nutrition and health. Such radicalism is not new but certainly has gathered pace in the context of COVID, Brexit and the National Food Strategy. But it is not only those who favour sweeping change across the food system as a whole who are voicing concerns. In February, three leading meat trade bodies – the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the British Poultry Council (BPC) – produced a joint report on how food chains are regulated: Food Chain Oversight: An Integrated Model. In many ways their verdict is just as damning as that of the RRs:

‘The UK’s food chain is overseen by a number of different agencies, bodies, authorities and organisations: FSA, DEFRA, PHE, TS, RPA, LA, VMD, Port Health, APHA, etc. No one ‘agency’ has overall responsibility across the whole food chain from farm to port. This approach leads to duplicative bureaucracy, inefficiencies in delivery, confused intelligence gathering, and a decoupling of the food chain resulting in an increased risk of food fraud, hampering enforcement and a waste of resource.’

‘The overlap between the differing agencies involved in the delivering of consumer protective measures along with animal welfare controls provides significant opportunity for streamlining of process and a more joined-up approach to policy formation and delivery. The food chain is fundamentally linked from the point of production to the point of consumption therefore it is entirely logical that the supervision, oversight, enforcement, control, audit and regulation of this production chain should be linked and delivered as one over-arching body.’

 The co-author of the report, Jason Aldiss, holds out the prospect of:

‘… benefits for all, from producers to consumers. Lower costs, lower environmental impacts and a better, more appropriate use of resources resulting in the UK having a world-class regulatory body, fit for purpose and helping drive the country forward in our new post EU trading market.’

 https://meatmanagement.com/meat-trade-bodies-offer-up-changes-to-food-chain-regulation/

As someone with limited experience of the details of the meat processing sector, the specific points that lie beneath the headlines are of considerable interest. For example, the report highlights the lack of join up in the food inspection regime with related inefficiencies of resource use and duplication of effort. Although the report does not spell it out, I assume the authors had in mind the combined efforts of environmental health officers, trading standards officers, official veterinarians, meat hygiene inspectors, food examiners, and port health officers. There may well be others I’m not aware of. The report suggests that instead:

 ‘multi-functioning inspectors should deliver a wide range of inspection processes at each input into the food chain and operate from one central command unit sharing knowledge, intelligence, data and good practice. The current regime operates in closed silos distinct and separate from each other…’

The report also highlights how the current inspection processes are highly manual relying on ‘out-dated and old-fashioned methodologies’, which do not reflect today’s food safety risk factors. It all seems very clear, but when I read a report like this, clearly authoritative but also from a particular perspective (these two things are not necessarily contradictory but need to be kept in mind), I often turn to the academic literature for another view. In this case I stumbled across a paper with a characteristic academic title: ‘Practices of attention, possibilities for care: Making situations matter in food safety inspection’. Written by Stephanie Lavau and Nick Bingham (Sociological Review, 65, pp20-35, July 2017), it takes a rather different approach. As the authors explain, they ‘followed the work of inspection from farm to fork, passing through places such as farms, livestock markets, slaughterhouses, processing factories, cold stores, air and sea ports, restaurants, retail outlets, and food testing laboratories. Over a period of two years and across twenty sites, we work shadowed inspectors with responsibility for delivering official controls of food in the UK.’ They found inspectors felt constrained and troubled by the regulatory changes and streamlining already underway, with some inspectors feeling that their particular expertise was already stretched too thinly across different aspects of food businesses: ‘Amid such rapid and profound change, our concern is that something important about the practices of food safety inspection is in danger of being lost, with very real consequences for the quality of its outcomes in making complex and potentially lethal situations matter.’

So, we have two very different takes on regulation in the meat sector, one from the vantage point of meat processors, the other from inspectors, albeit filtered through the lens of academic sociology.  Neither position is directly related to COVID but one obvious lesson from COVID has been a heightening of both surveillance and risk as important societal issues. My sense is that, although at one level, regulation and inspection in the meat sector seems a highly technical issue, there are real issues to grapple with here and they are important if we are to have efficient and profitable food businesses alongside consumer confidence in both the safety of food and high animal welfare standards. ‘Building back better’ in the food sector needs some of the zeal of the RRs alongside the practical insights of industry itself, leavened with academic insights.

A promising career in…

 

By Tim Wilkinson

In Sky television’s humorous political thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, while on a dinner date the protagonist Jack Ryan describes himself as being in ‘Supply Chain Logistics’. This is cover for his real job as a CIA analyst and anti-terrorist operative. It reminds me of the moment in HBO’s Sopranos, where gangster Tony Soprano answers a question about the nature of his job by saying: ‘I’m in the waste management business’. These comments are both intended as funny moments in the shows – with the joke (if we can call it that) being that a mundane sounding job title conceals something thrilling and illicit. ‘Supply Chain Logistician’ and ‘Waste Management’, are both stereotypes of jobs too banal to warrant further remark and are used to discourage further questions. But given the interest in the food supply chain and food waste over the last year, one can easily imagine a parallel universe. One in which a Supply Chain Logistician or Food Waste Manager are at a party and feel the need to pretend they have another job (a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, perhaps) – to avoid a throng of excited guests asking one hundred and one questions about how the food supply chain really works.

I have been collecting lots of diagrams of the food system and food supply chain this month. I’ve been looking at similarities and differences in how the system and supply chain are represented. Some diagrams are very simple and others are very complex. While there are often similarities, there are also lots of differences too; particularly in the categories used to express stages of the supply chain or elements of the system. It’s all pretty complicated. I’ve been thinking about why that is. Here’s a list of features of the food system that make it hard to understand:

  • Scale: the food system is local, regional, national, international, global
  • Multiplicity: the ‘food system’ is not really one system, but multiple semi-independent systems that interact and feedback to each other
  • Inter-connectivity: there are feedback loops, connections and interactions between food supply chain stages (e.g. manufacturing, retail), but also with broader, and more diffuse social, cultural and political domains
  • Specificity: the factors influencing the system are different depending on what type of food product we are talking about

Having a better understanding of why I’ve found it hard to get my head around the broader food system, I’ve been focusing on the specific food supply chain. In particular, I’ve been learning more about how the middle of the food supply chain works. One nuance I would like to highlight is the distinction between primary and secondary processing, and primary and secondary manufacturing. I found this is in Rachel Ward’s and Andy Kerridge’s 2018 report for the Global Food Security Information Architecture Scoping Project Report (ukri.org) (see Annex 2, p.10). The distinction between ‘processing’ and ‘manufacturing’ in the supply chain is common in representations of the food supply chain, but the sub-division these two processes into two stages provides a more nuanced image. I’ll use the example of a cabbage here to illustrate the distinction. Primary processing doesn’t change the cabbage, but makes it edible by washing or packaging. Secondary processing involves basic changes to the cabbage to make it into an ingredient (e.g. grating a cabbage). Primary manufacturing applies more complex processes to the cabbage, like cooking or fermentation. Secondary manufacturing is making more complex food from multiple ingredients, including cabbage (e.g. adding cabbage to a pie). I found these distinctions very useful as they sub-divide processes in the middle of the food supply chain. Better understanding of what happens to food after it has left the farm and before it is purchased by a consumer is really important.

I will write more about the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain in future bulletins. But for this month, I wanted to also highlight news on anti-food-waste apps. A Guardian article provides a summary: Millions sign up to anti-food-waste apps to share their unused produce | Environment | The Guardian. It’s often said that a third of all food is wasted and the potential for digital solutions is encouraging. I found these an interesting example of consumer to consumer exchange of food. This adds a further stage to the food supply chain beyond the initial consumer purchasing it from a retailer. Like producers selling direct to consumers, the pandemic has created new connections between parts of the supply chain. Given levels of food bank use and food poverty, anything that can be done to limit waste is valuable. I want to learn more about how these apps work, how food safety is managed and personal safety is protected during pick-ups.

As a final note, I would like to encourage any Supply Chain Logisticians, who might find themselves at a post-Covid party, to be themselves. Don’t pretend to be a Video Game Designer or Ski Instructor, but rather, please answer all those questions about how the food supply chain really works.

Government support for food wholesalers

 

By Tim Wilkinson

We have previously outlined some of the challenges faced by wholesalers as a consequence of the pandemic. Although wholesale businesses were not legally forced to close, they have been adversely affected. The closure of the food service industry dramatically reduced some wholesaler’s customer supply needs. However, with customers like hospitals, care homes and schools many wholesalers could not close entirely, without letting down these important services. Where wholesaler businesses have remained open but worked at reduced capacity, this has depleted cash reserves. While wholesale businesses were, like all businesses, eligible for the furlough scheme, this did not account for overheads such as warehousing or distribution costs. In addition to this, the closure of schools at short notice in January 2021 had costs for wholesalers, who were left with excess stock, additional storage costs and wastage. In February 2021 the Federation of Wholesale Distributors launched a petition [1] requesting the government provide bespoke financial support for the sector.

But targeted support was not granted in the government’s budget on 3rd March. Unlike other businesses in the food system whose financial support was extended in the budget, wholesalers were not given sector specific funding. Business rates relief was extended for eligible businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure – but having been excluded from previous support, wholesalers were not able to access the scheme extended by the budget. Neither were wholesalers eligible for the Restart Fund (which supports hospitals, hotels, gyms and personal care businesses). In early March, it was unclear whether wholesalers would be eligible to apply for local authority grants. These are non-sector specific funds available for all businesses to apply for and allocated on a discretionary basis by the local authority. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors pledged to help its members access this funding.

In mid-March there was news that wholesalers were accessing local authority funding. For instance, a London-based food wholesaler successfully secured half a million pounds of local authority grant funding. However, Fairway Foodservice CEO Chris Binge, quoted in The Grocer said, ‘The general amount a member in England has received is under £10k. There is no consistency in any of it. Different local authorities apply different criteria; some say “no”, one member was awarded £70 per day’. So similar businesses in different local authorities may end up with different fates. While providing much needed support, this discretionary funding did not give targeted sectoral support.

In late March, things changed dramatically. A new £1.5bn business rates relief fund was announced, and a ‘food wholesaler’ was referenced as an example of a potential applicant. This new package is available for all businesses outside retail, hospitality and leisure sectors who have been affected by Covid. But the use of food wholesalers as an example of a business who could receive support is promising for the wholesale sector. The pot will be distributed to ‘sectors that suffered the most economically, rather than on the basis of falls in property values, ensuring the support is provided to businesses in England in the fastest and fairest way possible’ (Gov.UK source). The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has welcomed this news. In the March budget it looked as if wholesalers might remain part of the ‘hidden middle’ of the food supply chain, but the new business rates relief appears to acknowledge the ways the impacts of the pandemic have reverberated down the supply chain.

 

For more information on the wholesale experience over the last year and the sector’s outlook, I found this analysis by The Grocer interesting.

 

[1] I’m signposting this petition for information; it is not an endorsement of it.

The South West Farm Survey 2020

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The fourth Centre for Rural Policy Research South West Farm Survey went out in the post in October 2020 and we have a great set of responses to process and analyse. Having run a farmer survey for the South West in 2006, 2010 and 2016, we are excited to see how the data compares with previous years. As in preceding years, the survey was sent to land managers in Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly. This is a broadly defined South West, which was initially drawn from New Labour’s South West region (abolished in 2009) and maps onto the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics (NUTS) region for the South West (UK).

The 2020 survey includes a wide range of questions: about the farm business and how it has changed, labour, use of technology, attitudes towards agriculture, succession plans and much, much more. Many of the survey questions are repeated (or evolved) from those asked in previous years so we can track trends and build a longitudinal data set; others are designed in response to current issues, this time, including Covid impacts, Brexit and Environmental Land Management.

We originally planned to launch the survey in March 2020, but delayed for obvious reasons. We sent out 4000 questionnaires in late October 2020 and reminders in early December. We have had 1110 returned – an incredible 28% response rate (a huge thank you to everyone who took part!). The data is currently being entered and processed. With 41 questions in each individual survey, there are well over 45,000 answers to record – a monumental job! We will be starting the analysis of the data in April and are looking forward to sharing results from the survey soon.

So has diet changed as a result of COVID-19?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

No-one is in any doubt that the Pandemic has for many people changed where they eat, especially during the lockdowns, with home cooking and takeaways flourishing at the expense of eating out. But the question of what people are eating is more complex. Headline data from Kantar published by the AHDB earlier this month compared Christmas food purchasing in the UK for 2020 with previous pre-pandemic Christmas sales.[1] Grocery sales were up by 11.7% on the previous year, compared to a mere 0.2% increase between 2018 and 2019. The largest year on year increase over the last decade was 6.1% between 2011 and 2012. Not surprisingly, Online was the big Christmas 2020 grocery winner and consumers shopped around less, continuing a trend seen throughout 2020.

What is interesting about these figures is that the closure of hospitality is likely to be less distorting of consumer trends at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Yes, of course, hospitality venues would normally boom in the run-up to Christmas and in the New Year and some, of course, do open for Christmas Day itself. Moreover prior to COVID there had been a sharp increase in eating out on Christmas day, but from a low base, estimated in The Caterer at just 3% of the population in 2017.[2]  So most people home-cater for Christmas day itself. Keep in mind that 11.7% overall sales increase figure as we turn to particular categories of growth between the festive seasons of 2019 and 2020:

 

 

[We are grateful to the AHDB for permission to reproduce the above graphics]

 

So dairy products, beef and pork significantly outstripped the overall trend. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, accompanying vegetables did not grow at the same rate with volume sales increases of 14% for carrots, 5.1% for parsnips and 7.2% for sprouts.[3]  So is the long term trend towards less meat being bucked by the pandemic? Well it’s too soon to say and data for one Christmas certainly do not make a trend; and data are still emerging on diet change and will continue to do so. This piece is not an attempt to provide any definitive answers but I turn now to two pieces of independent academic research recently covered for some further indicators around the ‘what’ question.

The first looks at whether individuals and families in the UK have changed their food choice motivations over lockdown and was based on 248 respondents to an online survey.[4] The authors, Sarah Snuggs and Sophie McGregor, caution that the results are preliminary and the sample was small. Respondents were asked to reflect on their food goals and motivations before lockdown and in the Summer 2020 looking at the relative importance of Health, Mood, Convenience, Sensory Appeal, Natural Content, Price, Weight, Control, Familiarity, and Ethical Concern:

Results indicated that the sample placed more importance on health, weight control and mood when choosing their food after lockdown than they had before, and less importance on familiarity. A number of sub-groups were identified who may be particularly vulnerable to food-related challenges in future lockdowns including younger adults, parents and carers of children, those self-isolating and individuals who do not live within close proximity to food shops.

Some of these findings need to be treated with caution. For example, as the authors point out, a concern with health may be caused by concern about weight gain rather than healthy eating per se. They also point to some fascinating differences between their sub-samples. Younger people changed more than older people with 18-26 year olds placing increasing emphasis on health, price, weight control and natural content and less on convenience and familiarity. The authors speculate that this this might be encouraging for improved health behaviours going forward. But on the other hand,

(T)hey might reflect the more negative point that young people are more likely to have become unemployed or furloughed than older individuals leaving them with more time to consider their food choices, but also more pressure to keep costs down.

In short, there is a lot we don’t know, and of course asking people about what motivates their food choices at best offers only a proxy for my ‘what’ question.  After all, when someone says I am eating more healthily we don’t know for sure what that means. As in any research, understanding the precise methods adopted in social science research is important. So when we come to our next paper, superficially there seems to be an immediate contrast with the Snuggs and McGregor work.  But the devil is in the detail of the aims and methods used (hence, of course, the need for multiple methods and sources for conclusive analysis of this topic). Buckland et al. offer interesting data on unhealthy eating during the pandemic.[5]

The researchers set out to increase understanding of the risk of overeating during lockdown period. Again they adopted an online survey which gave them 588 responses to analyse, 485 were from the UK and 219 from non-UK countries. The study aims were to:

  1. Assess reported changes to food intake (changes to overall amount eaten and for High Energy Dense sweet and savoury foods) during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
  2. Identify the eating behaviour traits that increase susceptibility to increased intake of HED (High Energy Dense) sweet and savoury foods.
  3. Explore whether adopting coping strategies linked with reduced distress (active coping, acceptance and positive reframing) would moderate the relationship between eating behaviour traits and changes to food intake.

48% of the sample reported increased food intake. But it is a complex story. For example, while respondents were more likely to report increased snack intake than increased meal intake, there was an increase in fruit and vegetable intake. Mean changes to HED sweet and savoury foods were low but there was a high degree of variation and 22-26% did report increasing consumption of HED sweet and savoury foods.

This is a complex paper so do look at the full version if you want to get to grips with the detail.  The authors are psychologists with a particular interest in craving and its control. Let me finish with their own conclusions to the paper:

In conclusion, within a sample of mostly white, educated, not low income, and not home schooling participants, this study identified the role of craving control as an important predictor of increased HED sweet and savoury food intake in response to the UK COVID-19 lockdown. The study also showed that the increased HED sweet food intake reported in people scoring low in craving control was reduced in people who adopted an acceptance coping strategies. Strategies that promote improved craving control and acceptance coping strategies should be further investigated as targets for future interventions to promote controlled food intake during viral lockdowns.   

 

[1] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-beef-and-dairy-winners-this-christmas

[2] https://www.thecaterer.com/news/restaurant/number-of-people-eating-out-on-christmas-day-set-to-treble

[3] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-produce-and-potatoes-benefit-from-smaller-christmas-celebrations

[4] Snuggs, S and McGregor, S. (2021) Food & meal decision making in lockdown: How and who has Covid-19 affected? Food Quality and Preference, 89, 104145

[5] Buckland, N.J. Swinnerton, L.F. Kwok Ng, Price, M. Wilkinson, L.L. Myers, A. Dalton, M. (2021) Susceptibility to increased high energy dense sweet and savoury food intake in response to the COVID-19 lockdown: the role of craving control and acceptance coping strategies, Appetite, 158, 105017.

 

How can we understand the complexity of the food system?

Spaghetti Junction UK

 

By Tim Wilkinson

I don’t understand how the food system works. That might sound like an odd thing to say from someone working on this project. But two unconnected things have hit this home recently.

First, the plight of wholesalers who have been treated differently in terms of government support and have not been able to access the same funding as retail and hospitality. Reports of millions of pounds worth of stock being left in warehouses after school closures in January 2021, and of wholesalers staying open to supply a reduced customer base of care homes, prisons and schools while suffering severe financial losses, made me realise how little I really understand about how food moves from food wholesalers to shops. This ‘hidden’ part of the food system is clearly critical; and while I have an idea of warehouses and distribution networks, in my mind it is a Lego version of all of that.

Second, I’ve been looking at industry classifications for types of food businesses for a survey we plan to run later this year. The variety of food business is absolutely huge. We have been using Standard Industry Classifications to help identify food businesses and to structure a sample. These are categories with fun, technical titles like ‘Retail sale in non-specialised stores with food, beverages or tobacco predominating’. Based on our search terms, there were approximately 45,000 food business contacts available. The list of businesses was fascinating. It included familiar business types like butchers, green grocers and cafes and restaurants, but also ‘makers of brewing equipment’, ‘bacon curers’ and ‘chocolate fountain’ suppliers. I’ve thought a lot about how Covid has impacted food businesses over the last 9 months but quickly realised I didn’t appreciate the full range of businesses involved.

So to help me better understand the food system, I’ve been thinking about how I see it at the moment. My instinct is to look at the food system as a linear sequence of steps. If you asked me to explain the food system to a five year old, I would say something like this: plants and animals are grown by farmers (and other food producers), they are sent to food processors who clean them up and begin turning plants and animals into something you can eat, from the processor food goes to food manufacturers who combine ingredients to make a food product, it is packaged and stored, then it is sold by wholesalers, and distributed to retail and hospitality businesses who sell the stuff.

But even aside from differences in the supply chain between food sectors, the reality is far more complex. Almost to the point where I lose the sense of it being a food system that is organised in a consistent way. While I might wish to see separate stages in the supply chain (producers, processors etc.), these can be collapsed – for instance by a farmer who grows, processes, manufactures and sells a product from the farm. Even where there are definitive and separate supply chain stages, there are networks of brokers and agents, importers and exporters, technical support, consultants and manufacturers of equipment who work in between these so-called stages and blur boundaries between them. Furthermore, any linear understanding of food being passed along a chain misses the dialogue between businesses on the specification of products, branding and marketing, and regulatory frameworks that guide and assure quality and safety. I’m sure there are many other reasons why my linear view is inadequate too.

In March last year, the idea of the ‘just in time’ food system was much talked about; supermarket ordering algorithms designed to keep shelves stocked with food (and fresh food) were affected by spikes in demand and required human intervention to set them straight. It feels a little bit too easy to talk about the ‘just in time’ food system in one phrase – it gives me the sense that I understand more than I do. So over the next few weeks I want to learn more about how food moves through supply chains, in particular from manufacturer to the supermarket shelves. How do systems of warehousing, shipping, haulage and transportation really work and what differences are there between sectors? How does demand from retail translate ‘back’ along the supply chain – how much stock do manufacturers make in advance? Why aren’t supply chains as visible as farms and retail in the public eye?