On Wednesday, even stricter measures were put in place in Belgium to try and combat the spread of the coronavirus. The intention is that, until 5 April, people stay put. They should not go anywhere unless it is absolutely necessary. While these restrictions are required, the entire economy is being affected. The fruit and vegetable sector has not been spared either. The Belgian government has defined the agro-food chain as an essential sector. This puts this sector in the same category as healthcare workers.
As a result, specific measures do not apply to the food sector. These include controls such as companies not closing because employees cannot keep the recommended distance from each other. But everything is being done to ensure that workers are as safe as possible. However, closing businesses in the foodservice and hospitality industries will, undeniably, have far-reaching consequences.
"Thus far, in the potato sector, it is mostly the businesses that supply large kitchens and fast food outlets that have been affected. These companies sell potatoes and french fries," says Romain Cools of FVPhouse and Belgapom, both in Belgium. "The (take-away) fry stores remain open, but people are still panic buying."
"This includes hoarding fresh potatoes, certain kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables. They are also stockpiling frozen vegetables and potatoes, as well as canned vegetables. This behavior continues, despite repeated calls to stop. There is, after all, enough of everything. The food chain is still going."
"Fewer snacks, like chips, are being eaten in cafés and such. But, even with this product, store shelves in Belgium are more often empty than not. If these measures remain in force for a long time (which is the expectation), various events will be canceled. These include the European Football Championships and possibly the Olympic Games. Then there are festivals and other events. These cancelations will affect the consumption of certain potato products," says Romain.
"When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables, it is mostly those companies that supply restaurants, large kitchens, and wholesalers that are impacted. Most of the demand for fruit and vegetables is now coming from the retail sector. There has been a decline in processed vegetable orders from larger caterers, schools, and hospitals. These places are taking almost no product anymore. The increased demand from retailers is, however, making up for this."
"Long-term effects cannot yet be estimated"
"It cannot yet be estimated what long-term consequences this crisis will have on the fruit and vegetable sector. Months of changed lifestyle and dietary habits could well have a longer impact on people's consumer behavior. But, I can just as easily imagine that once things normalize, people will quickly revert to their old habits. I do, however, suspect people will consider the climate impact debate differently than before," continues Romain.
"The critical need for the availability of nutritious food might well become more of a priority again. That will resonate for a while. It is not immediately clear what financial implications this coronavirus crisis will have - how it will affect governments and families' budgets. However, it is clear that it is going to cost a lot of money. Maybe consumers will turn back to cheaper, healthier basic foods. Maybe they will avoid the more luxurious products for a while."
The fruit and vegetable sector is essential
FVPhouse is the back office of the Belgapom, Vegebe, and Fresh Trade Belgium federations. "We have access to all the regional, federal, and European authorities' channels. This access is thanks to our vast network. We are tasked with bringing our companies to the government's attention. It is remarkable how quickly people forget, for instance, the role of trade and supply in the agri-food chain. For example, on Monday, we were in discussions with the Belgian government until midnight. This was thanks to our online contacts at Fevia," adds Cools.
"We wanted the government to add these important sectors to the list of essential sectors. This would be an annex to the recent ministerial coronavirus decisions. This addition was crucial. It resulted in the fact that certain mandatory regulations do not apply to these sectors. These measures include social distancing and compulsory working from home. These essential sectors include the medical and agri-food, as well as the security sectors."
Questions about the border situation
"We also send out a daily newsletter. It contains all the new regulations pertaining to our companies. These are on both the legal and the chains' operational levels. For example, it addresses certification auditing, staff communication, and how to prevent the spread of this virus. Even though we are working from home, we help our businesses with all their questions too. We also consider their suggestions, which is just as important. You can well imagine that this is a busy time," says Romain.
"The border problems are especially important to our members. France is one of our major partners. The measures taken there are not exactly the same as those taken in Belgium. We are also getting questions about other things too - the possibly involving people who are, technically, unemployed. Or ruling regarding seasonal workers. There are also very practical questions. Such as how to implement these preventative measures on the work floor. There is also growing unease about the raw materials markets. The potato sector is the most vulnerable to this."
FVPhouse immediately set up a crisis team. This was done to be able to respond as quickly as possible to the current situation. "Our network includes Fevia, the Belgian food industry federation. It also has UNIZO, the Belgian SME union, as well as European federations in it. We can, therefore, react and answer questions at lightning speed. We have a great working relationship with other federations in the food chain too," explains Cool.
"There is a lot of effort and solidarity to 'win this war' together, as (the French President, Emmanuel) Macron rightly put it. As FVPhouse's director, I try to coordinate things within our motivated team. It might be from home, as I said. But, it is possible thanks to emails and the zoom conference tool."
"Some of our members are a little anxious. They fear there may be a shortage of workers in the fruit and vegetable sector in the long run. It is mostly laborers from central and eastern Europe that cannot, or are afraid to, come to Belgium. Crops need to be sown and planted," he says.
"Something that is not planted in time will not bear fruit either. The first vegetables need to be harvested soon. Not just here in Belgium, but in some overseas countries too. Just think of the peas that need to be threshed in Portugal. Our people usually do this work. It is unclear if they will be able to get to Portugal easily," concludes Romain.
For more information:
Veerle van der Sypt
Tel: +32 (0) 933 912 52