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Expert comment: can our food supply chains cope?

Dr Kate Bailey, a Principal Engineer at WMG, is an expert in food supply chains and has shared her thoughts with us on the challenges our food supply chains have been facing in recent weeks.

Supply chains matter, food supply chains especially so. They work almost invisibly, ensuring we have 24-hour access to a wide variety of food and drink. We only notice them when they don’t work, as in the case of the rows of empty shelves of toilet rolls and tinned tomatoes. So what happened?

Food delivery

Take the tinned tomato chain. We buy from the supermarket, but the chain is made up of a network of warehouses where bulk stock is stored, the processor who tins the tomatoes and the producer who grows them. The retailer balances our demand for tins with supply from the warehouse and processor. Panic buying caused demand to spike and the tins of tomatoes couldn’t flow through fast enough from the warehouse to the supermarket to meet the rate at which people were buying – even though there were plenty of tins further down the chain.

We’re now seeing supply chains return to a level of normality. But there are still some challenges. Retailers are having to adapt their delivery channels to meet an almost 20% growth in online shopping.

We’re still seeing shortages of some foodstuffs. As almost 50% of our food used to be supplied through catering outlets (restaurants, staff canteens, pubs and cafes), there has been more demand for food in the home and some catering supply chains have been slow to switch to retail channels. Flour is a case in point – we’re baking more so demand is higher (sourdough and banana bread anyone?). While there is enough flour in the overall supply network, flour for catering is supplied in larger tonne bags so switching to retail size packaging has proved a challenge for millers and retailers.

Food insecurity, especially for people on low incomes, will be a continued concern so community schemes such as food banks are going to be a really important part of our response. However, our retail supply chains are robust and flexible so while choices may be more limited, there will be enough food to go round.

We’re also seeing the growth of local supply chains, such as fresh box schemes connecting farmers directly to the public. This all helps to create more diversity and resilience for our food supply.

Find out how staff and students from the University of Warwick are helping people access food during the pandemic, including volunteering with food banks and making use of spare fridge space. More details here.

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