Covid-19: Food co-ops look to ways to keep supply chains going

‘Our members are committed to doing everything in their power to ensure the continued availability of the abundant, nutritious foods’

With the Covid-19 pandemic expected to last as long as a year, food security is a pressing concern, with social distancing and possible illness posing potential disruption along the supply chain, from production through to processing, shipping and distribution.

These pressures have already seen Europe’s agri-co-ops join other industry players to call for measures to protect free movement of goods in the Single Market.

In recent days the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) has said co-operation in the farming industry is vital to ensuring food security and animal welfare. Its president Jerry Long welcomed “a strong commitment given by co-op leaders to work together as a sector”.

He added: “We need to ensure that the economy keeps working. We have to keep generating revenue to pay for the heroic work being done by our state services. We need to keep producing clean fresh food for our customers, in Ireland and overseas. It’s vital that the supply chains within the food industry can continue to operate, within the current advice issued by our health authorities”.

He also called on the government, banks, and the EU authorities to be creative and brave to facilitate liquidity within the supply chain. “There are huge disruptions currently to the supply chain, with the food service business decimated. We need to ensure that all players across the supply chain; distributors, hauliers, service providers, can have access to credit to allow them to survive what could be several months of business disruption.”

In India, there is concern that an upsurge in demand and a labour shortage from the crisis will hit dairy supplies, with some milk-producing villages closed off to collectors.

The National Dairy Development Board urged the country’s dairy co-ops to make arrangements to maintain the supply of milk and other products and prevent panic buying, and to work with local authorities.

They have been asked to help ensure uninterrupted collection, chilling, transportation and processing of milk and fodder in village – with lockdown measures posing a threat to livelihoods in India’s rural areas, it is hoped the dairy industry will also provide a source of income.

RS Sodhi, managing director of dairy co-op Amul, has also warned of a shortage of packaging material after the lockdown slowed production of Tetra Pak.

Other big players in the agri-co-op sector say there is no disruption as yet, and they are taking steps to keep things that way. Australia grain-handling co-op CBH Group said on its website: “At this stage, there is no impact to our storage and handling, and marketing and trading operations. Our business is continuing to operate as usual.

“We continue to receive regular updates on the situation from state and federal governments, including the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as international organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the situation.”

The co-op has introduced travel bans and social distancing measures. CEO Jimmy Wilson told members: “The team and I will do everything in our power to ensure service levels are maintained, but I must caution that there is a reasonable probability given what has happened in the rest of the world that there may be business disruption.”

In the UK, grain co-op Openfield said it had taken contingency measures to protect colleagues and customers and keep supplies running.

CEO James Dallas said in a letter to members: “All drivers and hauliers will always call ahead to let you know when a collection is due. If you would like your driver to make any adjustments to the way your collection or delivery is made, then please let your driver know when they call.

“All drivers have been briefed about increasing their personal hygiene and all relevant Government guidelines will be followed as we wish to maintain everyone’s safety. Drivers have also been asked to maintain a safe distance to anyone on farm and at the consumption points at this difficult time.”

In the US, sector body the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives is offering support and information to its members and working with policymakers to keep food supplies running,

It said: “Our country’s farmer co-ops and their member-owners stand ready to help their fellow Americans weather the unprecedented crisis we currently face. Our members are committed to doing everything in their power to ensure the continued availability of the abundant, nutritious foods that can help keep the country healthy.”

Beth Ford, CEO and president of US dairy co-op Land O’Lakes, told an interviewer on CNN: “There is plenty of food, milk production is strong, farmers are getting back in the field, it’s time for harvesting citrus down in Florida… this isn’t about how we have goods available, this is a distribution challenge right now.

“She said producers were working with each other, retailers, and government agencies to ensure distribution chains to do not break down.”

But she said travel restrictions would hit availability of migrant labour, with operations in California – a vegetable, bread and milk producing state reliant on 800,000 workers from Mexico. “We won’t be able to source new applicants … this is an issue for fisheries on the east coast, this is an issue for citrus in Florida. Labour is critically important.”

There are warnings of similar problems in the UK, where the government has backed a recruitment drive for a ‘land army’ of 90,000 people.